Tsongas takes off gloves in crucial Florida primary battle with Clinton 'This is one Greek who fights back'

March 08, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Staff Writer

MIAMI -- In a major shift of strategy, Paul E. Tsongas is coming out swinging against Bill Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination.

His new, fighting pose, unveiled as the campaign enters perhaps its most crucial 10-day phase, underscores the extent to which style and tactics are replacing substance in the Democratic contest.

Many politicians expect a clear front-runner to emerge 10 days from now, after a round of 13 primaries and caucuses concludes with elections in Illinois and Michigan on March 17. That leader will be either Mr. Clinton or Mr. Tsongas, whose positions on most major issues are either similar or complementary.

Yesterday, for example, Mr. Tsongas traded shots with the Clinton campaign over Social Security, a hot-button issue on which the two men have nearly identical records.

Responding to a Clinton attack on his proposal to limit cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients, Mr. Tsongas pointed out that Mr. Clinton had backed a similar plan in 1986. According to a Feb. 26, 1986, report in the Arkansas Gazette, Mr. Clinton supported a National Governors' Association resolution that would have reduced Social Security COLAs as part of an overall budget freeze.

The Tsongas proposal would apply only to Social Security recipients earning $125,000 or more, a fact Mr. Clinton does not mention in TV ads attacking the idea.

Mr. Tsongas called this an example of how Mr. Clinton had "distorted my record and selectively forgot his own."

At a news conference yesterday, following a speech in the largely poor, black Overtown section of Miami that drew only a handful of people, Mr. Tsongas said he had no choice except to take the down-and-dirty approach.

"This is one Greek who fights back," he said, contrasting himself with Michael S. Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee. "You hit me, I'm going to hit you back."

But he insisted he would prefer to avoid negative politics.

"Do I like it? No. Am I uncomfortable? I sure am," he said.

If Mr. Tsongas got the better of the exchange on Social Security, the same might not be said of another effort this weekend. No sooner had he landed in Florida, the battleground state on Super Tuesday, now just two days away, than Mr. Tsongas announced that he was going to "take the gloves off" against his "cynical and unprincipled" opponent.

What "really drove me over the edge," Mr. Tsongas told supporters in Fort Lauderdale on Friday night, was an ethnic slur allegedly made by Mr. Clinton when he criticized the Tsongas economic platform for lacking compassion for the middle class. What Mr. Clinton said was: "We can't put off fairness under the guise of promoting growth. It won't work; it's not American."

Though Mr. Clinton had made no reference to Mr. Tsongas' Greek heritage, Mr. Tsongas maintained that the phrase "not American" was "a code word."

"It is designed to divide Americans," he said. "Somebody of my background knows what that means."

Yesterday, Mr. Tsongas told reporters that he felt justified in interpreting the Clinton remark as a slur because of a "sea of malignant comments" that Mr. Clinton and his staff had made about him. But when pressed for examples, Mr. Tsongas backed off and said he would "have to go back and check it."

Mr. Clinton, who initially brushed off the ethnic-slur charge as the work of a "frustrated" opponent, fired back yesterday.

"Senator Tsongas is the only person who has made an ethnic slur in this election," he said. The alleged slur, he said, was a Tsongas attack ad, aired on radio stations in Baltimore and Atlanta, that highlighted the angry remarks Mr. Clinton had made about the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson that were picked up on tape and broadcast last month.

As part of his new attack mode, Mr. Tsongas is also assailing what he describes as Mr. Clinton's shameless pandering for votes, such as his promotion of the Seawolf attack submarine, a controversial weapon whose approval would mean jobs for defense workers in Connecticut, a primary state.

Brandishing a stuffed teddy bear to supporters in Florida, Mr. Tsongas mocked Mr. Clinton, telling the crowd, "This is my opponent -- Pander Bear."

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