Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) got a scolding yesterday from his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, who accused him of "knifing" them by manufacturing "phony differences" over issues of national strength.

The sharp exchanges erupted at the end of a two-hour debate sponsored by the Democratic National Committee and grew into a free-for-all in an impromptu joint news conference immediately afterward.

Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) opened the attack by admonishing his younger opponent in an avuncular tone: "I don't think it helps any of us to be knifing each other." He said he was referring to a recent speech in which Gore criticized Democrats who advocate policies of "retreat, complacency and doubt" in foreign affairs.

"I don't think I fall into that category," said Simon, noting that he has voted to support the Midgetman missile and Stealth bomber. "I think it would be healthy, if you didn't mean any of us, to say so right now, and if you do, I think we ought to be named."

Gore declined during the debate to name names, but afterward, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Simon and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) in a circle of reporters, he said, "All five." He said he was referring to their opposition to the administration's tanker-reflagging policy in the Persian Gulf and to flight testing for all ballistic missiles.

Gore also argued that the foreign policy debate he has triggered was needed to "reinvigorate the party . . . . Let us be candid about the fact that we have created a nomination process which tends to push all our candidates toward a single homogeneous view which is wildly attractive to a minority," Gore said, an apparent reference to the more liberal tendencies of the Democratic activists who participate in the Iowa caucuses.

"Al, we ought to debate differences, but let's not bring up phony differences," Gephardt responded at one point, arguing that Gore recently decided to portray himself as a hawk to separate himself from the field and build southern support. "Let's not talk about each other the way {former U.N. ambassador} Jeane Kirkpatrick and Ronald Reagan talk about Democrats."

"Al, you're sounding like the tough kid on the block," former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt told him afterward. "You ought to lighten up. You're getting intemperate in your use of adjectives."

The exchanges came in fits and starts over roughly a half-hour and throughout, Gore showed an appetite for battle that some critics said later was overdeveloped and counterproductive.

"If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," he told Simon.

"Al, don't misrepresent what we say," Gephardt said, noting that his opposition to the way the administration moved into the Persian Gulf does not mean he now supports a retreat.

During the exchanges, the sympathies of the audience filled with DNC members -- all are automatic delegates to the party's national convention next July in Atlanta -- were with Gore's critics.

But some said Gore's strategy of establishing himself as the only defense hard-liner in the Democratic field was paying off. "I think it's the best strategy going right now," said Ann F. Lewis, a former political director of the DNC. "I don't happen to agree with him, but he's defining the agenda, getting people to react to him."

Earlier, Babbitt tried to get a rise in what had been a flat discussion when he advocated raising taxes to help reduce the deficit. His proposal was met with silence from the audience. "I don't hear any applause," he deadpanned. "Some of you think that's a loser, but I think it's a winner and the American people are waiting for that kind of honesty."

When Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis said he would prefer to raise revenues through better collection efforts, Babbitt responded, "With all due respect, we aren't going to solve our deficit problems by hiring more tax collectors."

Gephardt later took after Dukakis on the Midgetman missile, asking him why he opposed the single-warhead mobile system supported by most Democrats. Dukakis said it is a "matter of priorities" and that the $50 billion should be spent on conventional forces and deficit reduction.

Babbitt thereupon criticized Gephardt for supporting the Midgetman but opposing flight testing that would be needed to ensure its reliability. And Gore attacked Dukakis' assertion that the Soviets are close to perfecting a technology that could strike down a small mobile missile. "Take my word for it, Mike, that's not the case," said Gore, who called himself the "author" of the Midgetman system.

The one candidate who steered away from the sparring was Jesse L. Jackson -- also the most applauded candidate for his attacks on multinational corporations that export jobs.

Jackson also drew the biggest laugh. In response to a question from DNC Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. about what the next president should ask of the American people, he deadpanned: "On my way over here, I was talking to my wife, and I had an original thought: 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.' " When the laughter subsided, he said, "Strike that." The response was an allusion to the August debate in which Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) used without attribution the words of British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock.