DENVER -- It was just another in a seemingly endless series of Democratic presidential debates last night -- until the subject turned to nuclear power.
Then the candidates went ballistic.
"We do not need to do what Senator Tsongas wants to do, to build hundreds of more nuclear plants," said Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
"That is a lie! That is a lie! That is a lie!" interrupted Paul E. Tsongas, a former senator from Massachusetts who is leading Mr. Clinton in Denver polls coming into Tuesday's Colorado primary.
"You don't want to build more nuclear power plants? Say you don't then. Let's get you on the record for the first time," Mr. Clinton said, pointing his finger at Mr. Tsongas.
The crowd of hundreds of Democrats began whooping and shouting as the men zapped each other.
The audience may have appreciated the fireworks, but underneath the theatrics, there was a stark political reality.
With seven states choosing delegates Tuesday, the field of five is about to get smaller -- and none of the five candidates wants to be the man eliminated. Therefore, the campaign has taken on an increasingly bitter and personal tone.
"No on can argue with you, Paul, you're always perfect," Mr. Clinton said sarcastically.
"I'm not perfect, but I'm honest," Mr. Tsongas responded tartly as the crowd erupted.
Mr. Clinton has been battling allegations that he has not told the truth about his draft record in 1969.
Mr. Tsongas, who came from obscurity to become a front-runner for the Democratic nomination, initially was liked by the other candidates, who saw him as a breath of fresh air -- and not much of a threat. But as Mr. Tsongas won the New Hampshire primary and then emerged as the surprise leader in polls in Colorado and Maryland, he increasingly has come under attack.
"When I was behind in the polls, I was a wonderful guy with good ideas," Mr. Tsongas said after the debate.
The other candidates took aim at Mr. Tsongas' repeated claims that he, alone, preaches "economic truth" while others pander for votes. "I am not Santa Claus," Mr. Tsongas says everywhere he goes.
"Paul, I appreciate that you're not Santa Claus, but you're beginning to sound like the Grinch that stole Christmas," said Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.
Earlier, Mr. Clinton's lead in polls, money and endorsements made him the target of attacks in the debates.