WASHINGTON (AP) -- Democratic presidential contenders criticized President Bush's recession remedies and sparred over their own in campaign debate last night. "They just don't get it," Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton said of the administration. "This country's in trouble."
"We are the alternative," said former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas. "We are the only alternative," he added for emphasis.
For two hours, the five would-be presidents debated economics, education, health care and defense policy. At times the free-flowing debate, carried live on the Public Broadcasting Service, seemed like a gentlemanly college seminar on the issues of the day. At others, it took on the tone of a schoolyard ruckus.
Two minutes from the end, former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. injected the the issue that has dominated the campaign for the past two weeks -- unproved claims by an Arkansas woman that she and the Arkansas governor had had a 12-year affair. Mr. Clinton has adamantly denied the allegations. "That's what everybody's thinking about . . . whether it's legitimate or not," Mr. Brown said.
"It's not legitimate," Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey broke in, adding that Mr. Clinton's critics should "ease up" on that score and that the more important issues are the candidates' ideas.
It was the second network television debate of the campaign. Mr. Clinton runs ahead in the polls, followed by Mr. Tsongas, with Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Brown trailing.
There was general agreement that Mr. Bush's call for a six-year defense spending cut of $50 billion wasn't deep enough and that his proposal to increased Head Start funding was inadequate as well.
But even as they brutalized Mr. Bush's economic policy, the five disagreed over the value of a middle-class tax cut. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Kerrey support it, but Mr. Tsongas opposed it in favor of a capital gains tax he said would create jobs. Mr. Tsongas called the middle-class tax cut idea "pandering" to the voters.
Both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Tsongas drew criticism for supporting a capital gains tax cut -- and Mr. Tsongas noted wryly that he was coming in for more criticism since his improvement in the polls. "Now I'm Darth Vader," he said.
Mr. Kerrey derided Mr. Bush's State of the Union address this week as "all hat and no cowboy."