In N.H., debate takes low road GOP candidates claw each other while deriding harsh ads

Campaign 1996

February 16, 1996|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Under heavy criticism in a free-swinging TV debate last night, GOP front-runner Bob Dole strongly defended his negative campaign tactics against rivals Patrick J. Buchanan, Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes.

Mr. Dole gave as good as he got. Fighting to maintain his narrow lead in this potentially pivotal primary state, he accused Mr. Buchanan of changing his position from free trader to protectionist and reminded voters that it was Mr. Alexander who fired the first negative shot of the 1996 campaign.

But Mr. Dole saved his most heated words for Mr. Forbes, who savaged the senator for months here and in Iowa with ads accusing him -- among other things -- of breaking his word not to raise tax rates when he helped engineer a 1990 tax increase.

"We do have a right of self-defense," Mr. Dole said of his own heavy use of negative ads. In a preplanned bit of political theater, he quipped that the Forbes attack ads did not use flattering pictures of him. From his pocket, he pulled a series of snapshots of himself, his wife, Elizabeth, and his dog, Leader, and passed them to Mr. Forbes.

No slouch at political give-and-take after only a few months as a politician, Mr. Forbes responded quickly that "no pretty picture" could disguise Mr. Dole's record on raising taxes.

"I know your problem," Mr. Dole shot back tartly, his voice rising. "You got a lot of money. You want to buy the election. But this election is not for sale."

Much of the 90-minute program was devoted to political process issues, especially the nasty tone of the race. The candidates broke no new ground when asked for their positions on such matters as world trade and Social Security.

The debate, on CNN and WMUR-TV, the state's most-watched station, came five days before Tuesday's primary. Polls indicate that a significant portion of likely GOP voters, perhaps as many as one-fifth, have yet to make up their minds.

If a group of 36 undecided New Hampshire voters who gathered in the studio to watch the debate is any indication, Mr. Alexander may have benefited the most from the event. Seventeen of the 36 said they were still undecided, but of the 19 who made up their minds, 13 went for Mr. Alexander.

"The reason I did so well in Iowa is that I kept on the high road," the former education secretary said during the debate. "People got sick of Mr. Dole and Mr. Forbes slamming each other."

Many voters here are voicing similar complaints. Debate moderator Jack Heath of WMUR asked candidates why they did not run positive ads spelling out their views on such issues as crime. And, when Mr. Dole echoed Mr. Buchanan's praise for the 1981 Reagan tax cut, the newsman interjected, "It's nice to see you two agree."

Mr. Dole -- who launched his first negative ad against Mr. Alexander yesterday, another sign that the former governor is a rising threat to win here -- rejected a plea by Mr. Alexander that he pull the ad off the air. The spot labels the former Tennessee governor as "too liberal" on government spending, taxes and crime, and concludes that "he's not what he appears to be."

"Senator Dole, you're better than your negative ads. Why don't you pull them off?" Mr. Alexander demanded.

Mr. Dole responded by noting that it was Mr. Alexander who ran the first negative ad of the '96 race, an attack here in August on then-candidate Pete Wilson on the day the California governor formally entered the race.

"I thought it was all right, since you did it," said Mr. Dole. He insisted that his commercial merely spells out Mr. Alexander's record as governor of Tennessee. The Dole ad accurately accuses Mr. Alexander of having raised taxes, a charge leveled frequently against Mr. Dole by Mr. Forbes. As governor, Mr. Alexander pushed through a 1 percent sales tax increase to finance a merit pay program for public school teachers as well as tax increases to pay for road and bridge improvements.

Mr. Buchanan assailed Mr. Dole for the content of his ads, saying that he had employed "the cuss words of the establishment" in a TV spot that calls Mr. Buchanan "too extreme" to be president. The ad, quoting from old Buchanan columns, portrays the commentator as hostile to women's rights and potentially reckless when it comes to the issue of nuclear weapons.

"If I'm an extremist, why are you pirating my ideas and parroting my rhetoric," a hoarse Mr. Buchanan went on. "You're becoming a pretty good echo of Pat Buchanan."

But Mr. Dole came back with a dig of his own about accusations yesterday that a top official of Mr. Buchanan's campaign had associated with white supremacists.

"Pat's really getting carried away tonight," Mr. Dole remarked, turning to Mr. Buchanan. "You have a bad day, or something?"

Despite Mr. Forbes' pledge to stay on the high road, the publisher delivered the sharpest attack to date on the financial dealings of Mr. Alexander, who has passed him in some recent polls here.

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