Clinton on the hot seat as rivals debate in N.H. Front-runner blasted by last-place Harkin

January 20, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Sun Staff Correspondent

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin attacked Bill Clinton in a debate of Democratic presidential candidates last night, hoping to reduce the wide lead the Arkansas governor has in the latest poll.

Last in the poll, Mr. Harkin went on the offensive against all his opponents, saying he was the only "real Democrat in this race," but he dwelled on Mr. Clinton.

He charged that Mr. Clinton's middle-class tax cut proposal would mainly benefit wealthier people and criticized the governor for supporting an increase in the Arkansas sales tax.

"If that's what he's done in Arkansas, what's he going to do as president, stick it to the little guy?" Mr. Harkin said.

Mr. Clinton angrily responded with criticism of the pay raise the Senate voted itself last year.

"Senator Harkin doesn't want to give middle-class people a $400 tax break, but he thinks it was fine to give himself a $23,000 pay raise," he said.

The tough talk in the two-hour televised debate, the first in New Hampshire, underscored the intensifying competition between the candidates as the Feb. 18 primary approaches.

A poll released yesterday by the Boston Globe and WBZ-TV showed Mr. Clinton leading with 29 percent, followed by former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (17 percent) and Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey (16 percent).

Mr. Harkin, who is counting on a respectable showing in the primary, was last at 3 percent. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown was at 7 percent.

"We're not terribly worried about it, I'll tell you that," said a Harkin spokesman.

The trailing candidates could find comfort in the poll's finding that New Hampshire Democrats haven't really made up their minds: When not given a list of names to choose from, 79 percent said they have not decided on a candidate.

The debate, sponsored by WMUR-TV, produced no new major proposals. Moderator Cokie Roberts of ABC News and National Public Radio questioned the candidates about the economy, education and crime.

Mr. Kerrey emphasized his support of national health insurance and said the nation needs an industrial policy to help deal with what he believes are unfair Japanese trade practices.

He and Mr. Harkin sounded more protectionist than their opponents and lashed out at Bush administration policies.

"Trade has come to mean my job's going to Mexico, my job's going to Japan," Mr. Kerrey said.

The professorial Mr. Tsongas joined Mr. Harkin in criticizing the middle-class tax proposals of Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Clinton, which they said would produce no economic benefits.

Instead, Mr. Tsongas stressed what he said was a need to stimulate manufacturing with investment tax policies and other tools.

Mr. Clinton has proposed giving the middle class an immediate tax cut that would average $400 per family.

"I think it's a lot of money," enough for a mortgage payment or clothes for kids, Mr. Clinton said.

But Mr. Harkin ridiculed the idea, saying, "That's going to give you about a dollar a day."

Mr. Clinton responded by bringing up the Senate's pay increase, a tack he also is taking in his campaign commercials.

Referring to the Senate, he said, "These people in Washington just don't get it. Too many are so out of touch with the average . . . person that they have literally presided over the demise of the middle class."

At the close of the debate, after Mr. Clinton had delivered his final remarks, Mr. Harkin again attacked him, accusing him of having "bought into Reaganomics."

He added that Arkansas is "last in environmental policy, last in workplace safety, 48th in number of children in poverty. And yet he gave tax breaks to large corporations and the very wealthy."

On crime, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Kerrey expressed support for capital punishment, with Mr. Tsongas indicating support only in the case of major drug traffickers.

Mr. Harkin called for a commitment of new resources to law enforcement, but said he's never seen any evidence that capital punishment deters crime.

Mr. Brown also opposes the death penalty.

"How about the crime in corporate suites?" he asked. "How about the crime in Congress?"

Mr. Brown, while seeking to shed the "Governor Moonbeam" label critics give him, nonetheless set himself far apart from the other candidates with his call for abolishing the current tax system and substituting a flat tax of about 13 percent on personal income and "business value-added."

Ms. Roberts also asked the candidates about their "electability," with a question to Mr. Clinton about how he'd deal with the "womanizing" issue.

New Hampshire television stations and newspapers have thoroughly covered tabloid newspaper accounts late last week that revivedprevious allegations of infidelity by the governor.

Mr. Clinton's wife, Hillary, joined her husband here this weekend and added her voice to his denials of allegations made by a former Arkansas state worker, who was fired for making calls to the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s and has vowed to ruin the governor.

A Republican Party official in Arkansas has acknowledged advising the former state worker, which gave Mr. Clinton the opportunity last night to accuse the Republicans of participating in smear politics.

The issue won't haunt him, Mr. Clinton said. "I think it is unlikely . . . that you've got anything to worry about on that issue," he told Ms. Roberts.

Earlier yesterday in nearby Meredith, while friends of Clinton were roasting a pig in his honor, his aides had been predicting the candidate would be grilled at the debate.

Mr. Clinton's polling director, Stan Greenberg, said, "We assume we'll be a target" because the Arkansas governor's front-runner status was reinforced yesterday in the poll.

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