Democratic Candidates Bash Bush on Economy : Politics: Five contenders launch spirited attacks on the President at a New Hampshire party meeting. Some infighting also breaks out.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Amid growing evidence that the economy is suffering a relapse, five Democrats competing in this state's kickoff presidential primary trained their big guns not on each other but on President Bush and what they said was his failure to lift the nation out of the recession.

Speaking at a state party convention Saturday, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa labeled Bush "the Herbert Hoover of the '90s." Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas vowed to lead a recovery from "the worst hurricane to hit America in 50 years--it's called Hurricane George." Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey pointed out that "for the first time in two generations, in 1990 the net worth of Americans declined--by $184 billion."

And Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton ridiculed Bush's recent suggestion that current low interest rates made this a good time to buy a house or a car. "If you are on welfare and food stamps, you can't hardly pay your light bill and be one of the thousand points of light," he declared, "let alone buy a house or a car."

The aggressive rhetoric of the contenders was matched by the upbeat mood of more than 1,500 delegates who waved banners and lofted balloons for their favorites and sang "Happy Days Are Here Again," the anthem of Franklin D. Roosevelt's victorious campaigns for the White House.

All this was in marked contrast to the defeatist attitude that has prevailed among Democrats since the success of Operation Desert Storm sent Bush's poll ratings soaring last winter. And the revived confidence of both party leaders and the rank and file seemed to bear out the oft-quoted maxim first propounded by analyst Richard Scammon: "There's nothing wrong with the Democratic Party that high unemployment can't cure."

The attacks on Bush's economic policy had special resonance here in New Hampshire, where a yearlong downturn has eroded much of the prosperity achieved during the booming 1980s. While statistics released Friday showed a rise in the unemployment rate and a decline in the index of key economic indicators nationwide, they also disclosed that food stamp usage in New Hampshire had gone up by 51% since last year, the highest increase in the nation.

The irony that such desperate economic conditions should prevail in the very state whose Republican voters gave Bush a key victory in their 1988 primary was pointed out by several speakers.

"George Bush took New Hampshire's votes and then forgot New Hampshire," Clinton declared. Tsongas challenged Bush "to come back to New Hampshire and look the people in the eye and tell them what you've done."

To a man, the Democrats also charged that Bush's heavy travel schedule and his focus on foreign policy had left the nation's domestic welfare in a state of neglect. "We need a President who cares about Manchester more than Micronesia," Clinton said.

As their prospects for regaining the White House in 1992 brighten, Democrats seem inclined to pay more attention to the country's problems and less to their own failings, which have preoccupied them since they lost the White House to Ronald Reagan and the GOP in 1980.

"The recession puts the focus on the faults of the Bush Administration, not on whether Democrats can get their act together," Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder said in an interview.

"The problem of how we got into this mess is now question No. 2," said John Monahan, state coordinator for Kerrey. "Question No. 1 is: How (do) we get out of it?"

The Democratic candidates were not shy about offering answers. Wilder touted his "Put America First" program, which would use $50 billion in savings from cutting defense programs, trimming waste and reordering federal priorities for a middle-class tax cut and aid to local governments.

Harkin cited his "New Growth Agenda," which is based on investing in infrastructure improvements, reforming the country's education and health care systems and toughening trade policies. Clinton proposed setting up a national fund to help finance college educations, along with a national service corps that would give young people the opportunity to repay college loans from the fund.

Kerrey stressed his own proposal for health care reform, along with a proposal for restructuring government institutions that deal with children. Recalling Bush's emphasis on pledging allegiance to the flag in the 1988 presidential campaign, Kerrey said: "If we make our children pledge allegiance to the flag every day, we should pledge to give them education, to give them health care, to give them housing."

Although the stress was on bashing Bush, a certain amount of infighting was evident. Tsongas touched it off by criticizing Harkin for accepting contributions from political action committees, or PACs, which he said represented special interests.

But Harkin told reporters he needed the funds, which in his case come mostly from labor unions, to help finance his campaign, and he accused Tsongas of "making a Republican argument." He added: "I'm not going to fight George Bush with one hand tied behind my back."

Kerrey later acknowledged that he had also accepted PAC contributions but contended that these gifts did not influence his votes or his policies.

Another dust-up occurred between Wilder and Clinton, who complained about Wilder's reported remark that Clinton had launched his push for welfare reform only after former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke had successfully exploited the issue in the Louisiana gubernatorial campaign.

Wilder at first denied the report, then appeared to acknowledge it, although he denied trying to liken Clinton to Duke.

Former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., who entered the Democratic race last month, was invited to attend the convention but declined because of a scheduling conflict.

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