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Gore, Dukakis Tangle During N.Y. Debate

Times Political Writer

Sen. Albert Gore Jr. and Gov. Michael S. Dukakis snapped and snarled at each other during a primary campaign debate here Tuesday while the Rev. Jesse Jackson preached party unity, claiming that he had done more than his Democratic rivals to “reach out to pull together” the fractious elements of his party.

Fired up by the enthusiasm of his followers in the audience, Jackson, giving the latest in a series of bravura debate performances, countered Gore’s depiction of himself as an underdog by saying he had been one nearly all his life. But now, he added, he much preferred being “a top dog and a winner.”

The first full-dress Democratic debate since early March--prior to the Super Tuesday primaries--demonstrated that, with the field of contenders considerably shrunken, the apparent substantive disagreements among them have faded.

Until Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt dropped out of the race last month, the candidates often argued about trade. And during the campaigning in the Southern states, Gore had sought to make an issue out of his ostensibly tougher stand on foreign policy and defense issues--presumably because the Tennessee senator’s advisers thought these views would help him with Southern voters.

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Style and Background

But on Tuesday, most of the differences underlined by the three candidates vying for support in next Tuesday’s New York primary had mainly to do with style and background. Most of the squabbling was between Dukakis and Gore, who, according to polls, trails far behind Dukakis and Jackson here.

The only serious dispute that emerged between Dukakis and Jackson in the “Big Apple Debate,” sponsored by the New York Daily News and carried by public television, was over how the party should select its standard-bearer.

Dukakis said the nomination should not go to the candidate with the most popular votes but rather to the candidate who has the most delegates. Though Dukakis holds a narrow lead over Jackson in both categories, he is considered a safer bet to emerge with the advantage in the delegate count because of the number of “super delegates"--party and elected officials--who are expected to back him rather than Jackson as a supposedly more electable nominee.

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Asked whether after all the primaries are over the nomination should go to the candidate with the largest popular vote, Dukakis said flatly: “No. I think it ought to go to the candidate who receives the majority of the delegates. That is what this race is all about.” But Jackson referred to the concept of “one person-one vote,” and said: “The integrity of that must be protected in this process.”

Power of Individual

Jackson added that although the super delegates had “a role to play,” they should not “supersede super voters. I believe power in a democracy rests with the individual person.”

In answering the questions from a panel of journalists, Dukakis, as he has throughout the campaign, sought to emphasize his experience as a three-term governor of Massachusetts. But in this debate, Gore tried to turn Dukakis’ record against him.

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For example, when the issue of welfare reform was raised, Dukakis said: “Here there’s no mystery about how we help people on welfare lift themselves out of poverty. We’re doing it in my state and in a dozen other states.”

Solving the problem, Dukakis explained, meant investing in job training for the single mothers who make up the bulk of the welfare caseload, and day-care for their children.

Accused of Benefits Cuts

But no sooner had Dukakis finished his reply when Gore, whose turn it was to answer the same question, said: “Well, if I’m not mistaken, Gov. Dukakis has just in the past week or so recommended very, very deep cuts in the programs designed to help welfare recipients and poor families in Massachusetts as part of the new budget plan.”

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“That is absolutely incorrect,” Dukakis interjected.

“Well, the newspaper accounts are wrong then,” Gore said.

“You’re wrong,” Dukakis shot back, to the cheers of his backers.

(The candidates did not elaborate, but Gore’s charge was apparently in reference to a Dukakis Administration decision to impound unspent money that had been allocated to the state human services department. His proposed budget calls for a 5.5% increase in Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the state’s principal welfare program--enough to offset inflation.)

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Gore went after Dukakis again when, given the opportunity to question him directly, he brought up a prison reform program that Dukakis had sponsored in Massachusetts, which granted weekend passes to prisoners, including some serving life sentences for murder. As Gore noted, 11 of these convicts failed to return, and two committed murders.

Asked About Prison Program

“If you were elected President, would you advocate a similar program for federal penitentiaries?” Gore asked to hoots and laughter from the audience.

“Al, the difference between you and me is that I have run a criminal justice system and you never have,” Dukakis replied heatedly. “Let me tell you that I’m very proud of my record when it comes to fighting crime.”

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But Gore insisted that Dukakis answer the question directly, and the governor said: “Obviously not.”

The testiest exchange between the two came when Dukakis, responding to a question about the rules for convention delegate apportionment, noted that he intends to compete for delegates of Gephardt, who has dropped out of the race, and of Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, who is no longer an active candidate.

Dukakis added that he might also compete “for Al Gore’s delegates,” implying that Gore, too, might soon be forced out of the race.

Warned on Expectations

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“Don’t lick your chops too soon, Gov. Dukakis,” Gore said. “New York is going to have a bigger say about that than you will.”

For the most part, though, on a broad range of foreign and domestic issues--including AIDS, help for the homeless, combatting drugs, and dealing with South Africa, the Soviet Union and the Mideast--the rivals were in broad agreement. The distinctions, such as they were, had less to do with policy objectives than with the differences in the candidates’ background and experience--which were sometimes cited as giving one or the other special qualifications.

One of the most emotional moments came when Jackson was asked what steps he would take to discourage young women from having children out of wedlock.

“I would appeal to young people to be mature enough to raise the babies that they make,” Jackson said, adding that he understood the problem such young women faced in being trapped by poverty and the lack of education and health care.

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“The sensations of sex may be the only touch they have of life itself,” he said. “But you must give people options above that. I’m sensitive to that. I was born to a teen-age mother. I know the plight. I know the pain. I know the agony.

“I know what it’s like to be trapped in the underclass. I also know how to get out,” he said to cheers. “Because I did get out.”

Times researcher Eileen Quigley contributed to this story.


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