Top Republicans wave flags, swap insults in S.C. debate Contenders spar over taxes, trade, ads and abortion

Campaign 1996

March 01, 1996|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- In the most free-wheeling debate of the Republican presidential campaign, the leading contenders sparred yesterday over taxes, trade and abortion, and swapped insults about the negative tone of the race.

A combative Sen. Bob Dole, aiming to turn around his flagging candidacy with a victory in tomorrow's South Carolina primary, was far more animated than in recent appearances. He fended off attacks from his rivals and tried to shift the focus to unseating President Clinton in the fall.

"This is not a game -- this is about defeating Bill Clinton in 1996," said the senator, pushing the argument that he would be the party's most electable candidate.

Mr. Dole reacted with anger when Steve Forbes accused him of having voted 16times to raise taxes, including incomes taxes on working Americans. Mr. Dole denied the allegation, saying he had voted to cut taxes 60 times.

"Don't malign my integrity here," said Mr. Dole, jabbing a finger in Mr. Forbes' direction.

"You're fudging again," Mr. Forbes replied, "just like Washington always does." He said Mr. Dole had switched sides on term limits for members of Congress, which the Kansas senator once opposed and now supports.

Mr. Forbes, trying to expand on his victory Tuesday in the Arizona primary, may have helped himself become better known to voters here. But he trails in opinion polls, which show Mr. Dole in the lead, followed by Patrick J. Buchanan.

The wealthy publisher was targeted by the other candidates, who attacked his wealth and the millions of dollars worth of negative ads he has run against them.

"You've spent most of this year changing our Republican Party into a negative ad sideshow," said former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who is straining to avoid being pushed by Mr. Forbes into fourth place in South Carolina. Mr. Alexander advised the political newcomer to "go practice your dirty business" in a race for the local school board first.

The televised forum, staged before business leaders in a ballroom in the South Carolina capital, was the first with only the top four GOP contenders. The sponsors invited only the top finishers in the New Hampshire primary, prompting a protest from Alan L. Keyes of Maryland, who was excluded.

The candidates explained how they differ over issues on which they generally agree. All, for example, say they oppose abortion. But when asked whether they would allow a woman who was raped to abort her pregnancy, differences emerged.

Mr. Dole initially fumbled the question, saying he would not allow such a woman to have an abortion. He corrected himself later, noting that he favors abortion in cases of rape, incest and to save the mother's life. After the debate, he said he had not heard the first part of the question.

Mr Buchanan, arguing that an "unborn child is innocent," said the rape victim should carry the child to term and put it up for adoption.

On taxes, the candidates said they favor lower, flatter, simpler federal income taxes. But none go as far as Mr. Forbes, who would tax only wages, not investment earnings, and would allow no deductions for home mortgage interest or charitable gifts.

Mr. Dole, in a shot at the Forbes plan, said he would not "shift

the tax burden from the rich to the middle class." And Mr. #F Buchanan, trying to attract South Carolina's many Christian conservatives, said that, unlike Mr. Forbes, he would permit deductions for contributions to churches -- "Pentecostal, Baptist, Catholic, Evangelical, anything you can name."

Mr. Forbes contended that under his proposal, the average family would save about $1,000 a year.

On trade, a heated topic in South Carolina, which has benefited from foreign investment despite losing textile jobs to overseas competition, Mr. Buchanan was the only one to depart from the party's free-trade orthodoxy.

The U.S. merchandise trade deficit, which hit $175 billion last year, "is a metastasizing cancer in the belly of America that is eating out our substance," said Mr. Buchanan, whose protectionist views were condemned by his rivals.

In response to a challenge from Mr. Buchanan, Mr. Dole said that if the North American Free Trade Agreement came up for a vote again, he would not support it "without some changes." The Senate majority leader helped lead the fight to gain congressional approval for NAFTA.

Aside from Mr. Dole's admission, there was no fresh ground broken in the debate, which gave a Southern flavor to the campaign. Picking up a line his supporters have been stressing here, Mr. Dole pointed out that he was the only contender to have served in the military, a political plus in the South, where patriotism and a vibrant military traditionally have been powerful themes.

"We're going to have a strong defense when Bob Dole is president of the United States," he said to applause.

And Mr. Buchanan, saying he would allow South Carolina to fly the Confederate flag over the state Capitol, delivered a spirited defense of the Old South.

"We've got to stand up for our heritage," Mr. Buchanan, who claims Confederate ancestors, said to applause. "My friends, there is room in America for the fighting song of the civil rights movement, 'We Shall Overcome.' There has got to be room for 'Dixie' as well."

The candidates were shown attack ads each has run during the primary campaign and were asked to comment.

They took turns blaming each other, with much of the finger-pointing aimed at Mr. Forbes, whose negative television and radio ads sharply escalated the war of the airwaves.

Mr. Dole, who says he's been the target of $12 million worth of Forbes ads, called the publisher "the king of negative advertising."

Mr. Buchanan called the attack ads run against him by the Dole campaign "a sign of the vapidity and the hollowness" of the senator's candidacy.

Coming primaries

Tomorrow: South Carolina.

March 3: Puerto Rico.

March 5: Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont.

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