Clinton defends his Democratic credentials, but says party must change

January 23, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton gave a podium-pounding defense of his Democratic credentials yesterday but said his party has to change if it wants to win back the presidency.

Mr. Clinton's remarks came in a back-to-back appearance here with his main antagonist in the Democratic contest, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who is campaigning as the only "real Democrat" in the race.

Responding to Mr. Harkin's claim that he is a Republican in disguise, Mr. Clinton recalled his start in national politics as a worker in George S. McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign and his efforts to assist organized labor in his home state. He also boasted of taking a pro-civil rights and anti-Vietnam War stance at a time when that was unpopular in the South.

"I believe we have to change. But we're not going to get very far with this 'real Democrat' talk," Mr. Clinton told the pro-Harkin crowd of labor union leaders. "Franklin Roosevelt [was] not a great president because he did just exactly what some previous Democrat did. He was a great president because he embraced the challenge to unify the country in many different ways and to move forward.

"I am a Democrat by heritage, instinct and conviction," Mr.

Clinton said. But he added: "I am an American first, and so should you be."

His speech followed a blistering attack from Mr. Harkin, a no-excuses liberal who is running last in the early polls.

Mr. Harkin launched what amounted to his fiercest attack yet on his Democratic rivals in his hourlong appearance before the Non-Partisan Political League of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, historically one of the nation's most liberal trade unions.

"I need your help," Mr. Harkin told the labor leaders. And in sharp contrast to the frosty reception accorded Mr. Clinton, he left with more than just applause for his troubles. As he headed for the door, Mr. Harkin handed his campaign manager a fistful of personal checks that had been written on the spot by audience members.

"It's time to take off the gloves and tell it like it is," said Mr. Harkin, who faces possible elimination from the race if he does not finish ahead of Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey in the New Hampshire primary Feb. 18. Mr. Kerrey was ranked third, behind former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas in one recent poll.

For the first time, he attacked Mr. Kerrey for failing to provide health-care benefits to all the workers of a restaurant chain he founded with his brother-in-law in the early 1980s.

"Don't do as I do, do as I say," Mr. Harkin remarked acidly of the Nebraska senator, who has made national health insurance the linchpin of his presidential campaign.

Mr. Harkin issued what amounted to his most detailed critique yet of Mr. Clinton's 11 years as governor of one of the nation's poorest states. Arkansas, he claimed, ranks next to last among the states in education, last in job safety and last in environmental protection. Mr. Harkin also quoted a 1991 article from Financial World magazine rating Arkansas as the worst state in the nation in which to do business.

"Democrats all over the country ought to know the record," the senator said.

The current issue of Time magazine, with Mr. Clinton's picture on the cover, also contains a poll showing that a majority of Democratic voters favors a pro-government liberal candidate over a more electable moderate, he noted.

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