Democrats' first debate is raucous 6 candidates join in assailing Bush

December 16, 1991|By Paul West and Dan Fesperman | Paul West and Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas won the first symbolic test of the 1992 Democratic presidential race yesterday, then got front-runner treatment from his rivals in a sometimes-raucous TV debate last night.

The six announced Democratic candidates, in their first joint appearance before a national audience, were predictably harsh in their criticism of President Bush. But they also turned their guns on one another, with Mr. Clinton, the victor in a Florida straw ballot earlier in the day, drawing most of the fire.

The 90-minute program, broadcast live by NBC, was dominated by foreign policy questions, an unexpected turn given the Democrats' political strategy of shifting attention to economic problems at home.

The debate also veered off course several times: Candidates bickered over the propriety of accepting campaign contributions from interest groups and application of a litmus test to potential Supreme Court nominees on the issue of abortion.

"For some reason, this debate's getting off track," protested Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, who may have gained the most with a relaxed, yet forceful presentation that did not appear as rote as some of the others. "The fact of the matter is that there is a significant recession today. . . . I hope this debate gets back to it."

Mr. Kerrey was also the only contender to directly confront former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., who took advantage of the free television time to launch repeated attacks on the Washington establishment and audaciously advertised a toll-free telephone number to raise money for his campaign.

That ploy, a violation of debate rules, drew a rebuke from the moderator, Tom Brokaw. Mr. Brown responded by accusing NBC of censorship and recited the toll-free number again in his closing remarks.

At one point, Mr. Kerrey, seated next to Mr. Brown on the studio set, turned to the former California governor and challenged his assertion that Congress is an exclusive club that answers only to wealthy campaign contributors.

"Are you saying that I'm bought and paid for?" asked the Nebraska senator.

"I'm saying you are part of a system that is bought and paid for," replied Mr. Brown.

Mr. Kerrey just smiled.

The Democrats' TV debut came only hours after their first electoral test of strength, a straw poll at a state Democratic convention in Orlando, Fla. Mr. Clinton, who made a serious effort to win the non-binding vote, got 54 percent of the 1,739 ballots. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the only other candidate to make a concerted bid, received 31 percent, and Mr. Kerrey, 10 percent. The rest got less than 2 percent each.

New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo got 21 write-in votes. However, the Florida delegates loudly jeered every mention of his name, in resentment of his apparent indecision about becoming a candidate, which also kept him out of the debate.

With the first primary just two months away, the Democratic candidates used the TV debate to introduce themselves to the nation.

Mr. Clinton cited his 11-year tenure as the country's senior governor and defended his proposals for a middle-class tax break, for college loans in exchange for national service and for defense spending cuts $100 billion greater than the Bush administration wants.

He also sharply attacked Mr. Bush's foreign policy and delivered a fervent plea for additional U.S. aid to the newly independent republics of the Soviet Union.

"Taking care of our own people is reducing the threat of nuclear war," he said, parting company with those calling for a phaseout of foreign aid. "Dealing with the Russian crisis now is taking care of our own."

Mr. Harkin said that the U.S. government needs to stop "acting like the Lone Ranger" around the world and "quit subsidizing Europe and Japan."

"Bring that money home, and let's put people to work," said Mr. Harkin, holding a dollar bill aloft as a prop to criticize Mr. Clinton's tax cut plan. He said the plan, which would reduce the average family's taxes by about $350 a year, is "a joke."

That's not going to solve our problems."

Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder cited his place in history as the nation's first elected black governor: "In America, anything is possible."

Former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas tried to set himself apart by emphasizing his business experience since leaving politics in the mid-1980s. He criticized several of his rivals for what he termed a lack of understanding of the economic problems.

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