MIAMI, OCT. 5 -- From the Persian Gulf to Grenada to Nicaragua, Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. said he found his five rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination lacking the resolve to project U.S. strength into hot spots abroad. Gore made the remark during a televised foreign policy debate here tonight.
For the second time in two weeks, Gore seized the initiative in the debate and etched the most distinctive profile of anyone in the field. Afterward, encircled by a throng of reporters, he placed his competitors "on the edge of the mainstream" in foreign policy and portrayed himself squarely in the middle of the Democratic internationalist tradition of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Harry S Truman.
But at least one of his opponents, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, suggested afterward that Gore "may be pandering to the right wing of the party" and accused him of changing his position on the issue of aid to the Nicaraguan contras in the mistaken belief that doing so would attract votes in the southern primaries on March 8, the so-called "Super Tuesday."
During the debate, Gephardt sparred most aggressively with Gore, but he also may have created an issue on his own when he suggested that the United States might consider supplying military assistance to the black South Africans who are fighting for freedom against the racially separatist regime of that country. Pressed afterward, Gephardt declined to say under what circumstances he would supply military aid, but made it clear that he would approve it only if a revolution were already under way.
The debate -- moderated by Ted Koppel of ABC News' "Nightline" and broadcast on public television stations -- was sponsored by the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderate and conservative elected officials.
The main areas of contention included:
Grenada. Gore forced a give-and-take by jumping in and asking Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis whether he supported the 1983 U.S. invasion. Dukakis equivocated, saying he has "great questions" about whether American lives and property were in fact in danger, which Dukakis called the only justification for an invasion.
Jesse L. Jackson broke in, asserting he opposed the action.
"Rev. Jackson and Gov. Dukakis are both wrong," said Gore. He said American lives were in jeopardy, neighboring nations had asked the U.S. to take action, a Cuban airstrip was under construction and "a bunch of thugs" had just taken over the government.
Nicaragua. The six Democrats were asked how they would respond as president if the Sandinista government reneged on pledges to observe human rights at home and not to disturb its neighbors -- promises similar to those required by the peace plan proposed by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and approved by all five Central American presidents. Most of the candidates either sidestepped the question or suggested an unspecified multilateral response, coordinated with Central American allies. Gore proposed "an economic boycott, leading up to a blockade."
"I disagree with the way Ronald Reagan has handled Central America, but that's not to say we should go whole hog in the other direction," Gore said.
Gephardt responded, "Al, I would hope you would rethink your position," and reminded him that he had voted "18 to 20 times" against military and humanitarian aid to the contras. "I don't think we should leave the beliefs we've stood for for the past five years," Gephardt said.
Gore parried that "what's changed is the Arias peace plan" and said he recently voted for $3 million in "maintenance aid" to the contras in the hope of keeping the peace process alive. Gephardt called the administration's contra aid request a "ruse" and said the White House is not seriously interested in pursuing peace.
Persian Gulf. "Is our reaction to turn tail and abandon the principle of freedom of the seas because of saber rattling by the Ayatollah Khomeini?" Gore asked, noting he was the only Democrat in the field who did not initially oppose the administration's policy of reflagging Kuwaiti oil tankers. His rivals all faulted the administration for failing first to line up the support of allies. "If we always insist on waiting for some other nation to come along, we are not playing our proper role," Gore said.
"Nobody is talking about turning tail and running, but a bad idea never gets any better," Gephardt responded.
There were a few disagreements last night that did not center on Gore. Former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, for example, said it was "horrifying" that U.S. strategic doctrine calls for responding to a conventional Soviet attack in Europe with a nuclear strike, and proposed that this nation instead adopt a "no-first-use" nuclear doctrine.
"If you are talking about surrendering Europe to a conventional strike, I totally disagree," Gephardt responded. "If the unthinkable happened, we would have to deter that with a nuclear strike."
All the candidates called for more burden-sharing of defense expenditures by allies, all opposed deployment of the administration's proposed space-based antimissile system, and all opposed using the CIA for assassinations or military overthrows.
Illinois Sen. Paul Simon said he was "not sure the CIA should be handling covert activity" of any kind, and suggested that it would be better if the military carried out covert operations.