JOHNSTON, IOWA, NOV. 5 -- Just as the Democratic presidential candidates were about to put themselves and everyone else to sleep with rounds of bloodless debates, they stirred tonight, showing there is some fight left in them after all.

Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (Tenn.) threw the toughest punches in a televised, two-hour debate on education. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) took Gore's most stinging blow.

Gore asked Gephardt why he once voted for tuition tax credits for private schools and now opposes them, and why he voted against creation of the U.S. Department of Education but now supports the continuation of the department.

Gephardt answered that he opposed forming a Cabinet-level department for budgetary reasons, and cast his vote for tuition tax credits before he realized how bad a crisis public education faced. "I've changed my view," he added.

In mocking tones, the Tennessee senator said the reply reminded him of a story often told by Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) about a politician who would finish each speech saying: "Thems is my views. If you don't like them, I'll change them."

The exchange came in a portion of the debate where candidates were allowed to put a question of their choice to any of their opponents.

It was particularly damaging to Gephardt because he has changed his position on a number of symbolic issues -- including legalized abortion -- since becoming a presidential candidate.

But that section of the debate, sponsored by the Iowa Education Association and other school groups, turned into a friendly slugfest.

Jesse L. Jackson, for example, questioned Gore about an effort by his wife, Tipper, to censor profanity and suggestive remarks from rock lyrics and videos. Censorship is a sensitive topic among liberals who dominate the Iowa Democratic Party.

"I'm extremely proud of what my wife has done," replied Gore. Jackson said he agreed, adding, "I'm delighted that we both, the southern candidates on this platform, share this view."

"South Chicago," joked Gore. Jackson grew up in South Carolina, but moved to Chicago in the early 1960s.

Gephardt used the opportunity to attack Sen. Paul Simon (Ill.), who has been gaining rapidly on him in this critical early caucus state. He noted that Simon had said in a recent speech that employers should pay a 10 percent yearly bonus to anyone who knows a foreign language.

Gephardt said the idea was like many others of Simon's: "Your views and values are right, but I don't think your programs would work," he said.

He also called "hokum" suggestions by Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis that the deficit could be substantially reduced by increased enforcement of federal tax laws.

The debate was one of three times the Democrats are to appear together this week. The two earlier debates, one on the environment and the other on social issues, had been tedious, lifeless affairs.

The candidates are facing weeks of more of the same. They have been invited to 25 debates in Iowa alone before Feb. 1.

"I'm beginning to feel sorry for the candidates," said Iowa Democratic chairwoman Bonnie Campbell. "There are getting to be just too many of them. It is grueling. I would think they could do better out raising money for their campaigns or shaking hands."

Hopes had not been high for an interesting debate tonight. "Whoever can keep your attention during this debate on education deserves to be your next president," said Jackson.