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Heated Debates End in Truce for Democrats

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

After slugging it out for much of a Sunday debate doubleheader, four Democratic presidential contenders declared an informal truce and agreed that however sharp their differences, they still prefer each other to President Bush.

Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, who bore the brunt of his colleagues’ attacks in a bitter debate Saturday in Denver and during the confrontations Sunday in Atlanta and College Park, Md., claimed the role of peacemaker.

“There may be differences between us,” he said just past the midway point of the 90-minute forum in College Park, which was also attended by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. “But you’ve got to remember that whatever differences exist are marginal compared with George Bush. And that’s what we’re talking about.”

Clinton, who earlier in the day seemed prepared to rhetorically dismember his adversary from Massachusetts, promptly seconded the motion.

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“Having these arguments is not destructive as long as we remember what Sen. Tsongas said,” Clinton asserted. “I will tell you something. I don’t mind arguing with these folks, and I’ll do it until tomorrow at dawn if you want. But when the cows come home, I’m going to be trying to replace George Bush, whether I finish first or last in the primary.”

But before the onset of harmony, plenty of harsh words were heard, most of them directed at Tsongas, who leads in polls in Maryland and Colorado, and at Clinton, who is the front-runner in surveys in Georgia. The three states represent the major prizes in a crucial round of primaries and caucuses Tuesday.

Taxation was the issue that set off most of the sparks in the Atlanta debate, which involved Tsongas, Clinton, Brown and Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, who participated via a satellite hookup from Denver, where he was campaigning. Harkin was absent.

Clinton landed the first punch, responding to a question about Tsongas’ charge that the Arkansas governor’s support for a middle-class tax cut amounts to pandering to voters. Not so, Clinton maintained, arguing that the cut would have a short-term, stimulative effect on the economy. He contended that it was “dead wrong” to oppose a tax cut for the middle class while endorsing a cut in capital gains taxes.

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“The question is not whether the middle class gets a tax cut,” Clinton said. “It’s do you want to give it to the middle class or to people investing in stocks?”

While he was at it, Clinton also took a shot at Tsongas’ plan to raise the federal gasoline tax by 5 cents each year over the next decade. “How is that fair to rural people in Arkansas and Georgia . . . when people riding the ‘T’ (subway) in Boston and the other people riding mass transit won’t have to do that?” he demanded.

But Tsongas had a snappy reply. “You in fact did raise the gasoline tax 5 cents (as governor of Arkansas), so I am just trying to honor your tradition,” he said sarcastically. Tsongas called his proposal to boost gasoline revenues essential to fund an energy policy that is “constructive and coherent and gradual.”

Clinton also had to defend himself against Kerrey in the Atlanta debate. The Nebraska senator--a Vietnam War hero who last week said Clinton was not electable because of the controversy surrounding his draft status during the war--returned to the attack.

Looking Clinton right in the eye, Kerrey denied that he had questioned his patriotism. Then he said: “Central to your message is this notion of national service"--a proposal to encourage young Americans to serve their country at home or abroad.

“Now, you did have a chance to serve in the 1960s. You could have gone to the Peace Corps or walked into any recruiting office and joined up and served when duty called,” he said. “What do you say to a young person when they come back and ask you: ‘How come you didn’t serve in the 1960s?’ ”

“I’d tell them first of all that I opposed that war,” Clinton replied. “I thought it was a terrible mistake.” Clinton added that he had given up a four-year draft deferment and that during the year when he was eligible for the draft lottery, “I thought I was going to service; I expected to be drafted.”

Clinton had obtained a deferment in 1969 on the condition that he would join ROTC at the University of Arkansas. A few months later, he gave up the deferment, saying that he felt guilty over having obtained it and that he opposed the war. He got a high number in the draft lottery, however, and was never called.

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At the Atlanta debate, panelist Bill Nigut, a reporter at WSB-TV, asked Clinton: “Did Sen. Kerrey challenge your patriotism or not? He was certainly tough last week.”

“It just depended on what day you listened to him,” Clinton replied. “But, you know, these things happen in campaigns, and I don’t take them personally.”

When the battleground shifted to Maryland, Brown took aim at the economic policies that have been the basis for Tsongas’ surprisingly strong early showing. After Tsongas urged government incentives to business to revive the cities, Brown called the notion “one of the weaknesses” in Tsongas’ thinking.

“He talks about capital gains breaks and things that might have some effect on already-started-up businesses,” Brown said. “But the problem in this country is there are millions and millions of poor people who’ve fallen completely below the safety net and they need immediate help.”

The fiercest blows of the day were struck by Harkin, the self-described “only real Democrat” in the race. During the course of the Maryland debate, he took after both Tsongas and Clinton--and Brown for good measure.

At stake in his disagreement with Tsongas, Harkin said, was nothing less than “the heart and soul of our party.” What Tsongas wants, Harkin contended, is to “sell out our heart and soul” to win back some of the voters who supported Bush in 1988.

“Unless and until we get rid of supply-side, trickle-down economics, none of the things that either Mr. Brown or Mr. Tsongas says is going to work,” Harkin said of the proposals made by his rivals for reviving the nation’s cities.

Later, after Clinton sought to minimize the threat environmental protection could pose to economic growth, Harkin snapped: “Mr. Clinton, that was a very nice, flowery little speech, but we have to start reading the record and not reading our lips, my friends. The fact is that Arkansas has been rated last in environmental policy.”

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He cited an article in Newsweek magazine that he said called the Arkansas environmental protection agency “a joke.” He also said the article reported that the agency “was loaded with representatives of the biggest polluters in the state of Arkansas.”

Clinton responded that the article was unfair. “We have had cleaner water, cleaner air, tougher enforcement under my governorship. Look at the record.”

But the candidates banded together to criticize Bush’s civil rights policy. Asked to recall what sparked their commitment to civil rights, Brown mentioned the 1965 Watts riots, Tsongas told of his Peace Corps duty in Ethiopia, Clinton recalled his boyhood in a segregated Arkansas town and Harkin spoke of his efforts to desegregate housing in Ames, Iowa.

Clinton called them “moving stories” that signaled a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. He said Bush cannot play “the race card against us. Democrats are not going to let him do that. We’re going up or down together.”


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