WILLIAMSBURG, FEB. 29 -- The Democratic presidential aspirants got punchy here tonight.
In the 24th group debate of this marathon campaign, the issues were familiar -- taxes, trade, oil import fee, PACs -- but the tone wandered from sniping to raucous. For three of the five candidates, it was their third debate in three states in three days. The toll on them showed.
The most raw exchange of the 90-minute session began when Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (Tenn.) described the 1981 tax measure as the "Reagan-Gephardt tax bill" and asked Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) if he thought it was fair.
As Gephardt -- Gore's chief rival for the votes of moderate Democrats in the 20 states that will select delegates on March 8 -- started to answer, Gore repeated: "Is it fair? Is it fair?"
"Are you finished?" Gephardt responded angrily. "Are you finished?"
"If you'll answer," Gore said, taunting him.
"I thought they taught you manners at St. Albans," Gephardt said, a reference to the Washington prep school Gore attended that has come to symbolize the shakiness of his claim to deep southern roots.
After the audience laughed, clapped and groaned, Gephardt continued, "You bet it's fair to give two-thirds of the cuts to families that earn less than $50,000."
"But was the bill fair?" Gore pressed.
"Can you hear, Al?" Gephardt asked, his voice dripping with contempt.
Later, Gephardt and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis had a similar exchange over campaign financing. Gephardt -- who has taken more political action committee money than anyone in the Democratic race despite waging a self-styled antiestablishment campaign -- defended PACs, saying they brought more people into the political process.
"Dick, don't give us this establishment stuff when you're out there taking their money," Dukakis interjected.
"How about your taking money from people who do business with the state?" Gephardt responded. When he said many of his PAC contributors in fact opposed his trade policies, Dukakis jumped in: "How about the sugar growers?"
On another issue, Dukakis said that an oil import fee Gephardt has proposed would stimulate the domestic oil industry but virtually cripple Mexico. Gephardt interjected: "Are you running for president of Mexico or president of the United States?"
As usual, it was left to Jesse L. Jackson to play peacemaker, tension-breaker and crowd-pleaser.
"They're the most nervous," he said of his testy rivals, "because these guys have spent the most money and now they see the polls." Jackson, who is expected to do well on March 8, "Super Tuesday," then drew laughter by publicly thanking former Virginia governor Charles S. Robb, outgoing chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, for helping to create the 20-state contest. Robb was in the audience at the College of William and Mary, where the DLC-sponsored debate was held.
Jackson needled his rivals only when he congratulated them for adopting "Jesse Jacksonisms" in their recent campaign rhetoric on workers; he said it was proof he was prevailing. Dukakis suggested the reverse: "Soon we'll be calling you a centrist," he said, half-joking.
When debate moderator Judy Woodruff asked Gore whether he has backed off from attacking Jackson in order not to offend blacks, Gore drily replied that Jackson "doesn't have a record to talk about."
Former Colorado senator Gary Hart steered clear of invective but pressed hard at the others for failing to present a budget, and at Gephardt in particular for his trade policy. Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), who is not competing actively in Super Tuesday contests, did not attend the debate.
Earlier today, before the candidates came to town, some of the DLC leaders who helped create Super Tuesday assembled for their annual conference and pronounced their handiwork a success. But some skeptics said the claims were reminiscent of a strategy that was urged on policymakers during the Vietnam war: Declare victory and get out.
"Super Tuesday is already a success," said Robb, describing what he saw as its effect on the Democratic race. "It has changed the dynamic of the nominating race, prompting new campaign strategies and generating healthy skepticism about the supreme importance of the early contests. In fact, it has confounded the conventional wisdom, which held that Super Tuesday would merely magnify the results of those contests. The field has hardly been winnowed, no clear front-runner has emerged and the race remains wide open."
Sen. John Breaux (La.) defended the regional primary on the ground that the candidates have already spent more time in the South than ever before. "In 1984," he quipped, "the only time Walter Mondale stopped in Louisiana was to refuel."
And Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.) said the key test would be whether the regional primary enables Democrats to transfer to the presidential level the base of voters who have sent Democrats to state and local offices in such overwhelming numbers in the South. He predicted it would.
But there was skepticism as well. Many state and local leaders said the large field, lack of clear front-runner and diffusion of campaigning over 20 states have dampened voter interest. North Carolina Lt. Gov. Robert Jordan, for example, predicted that turnout in his state would be about 20 to 25 percent, or slightly more than half of the normal primary turnout for state and local races.
In the event of small turnouts on the Democratic side, the beneficiaries are likely to be Jackson, who has a ready-made, activated base in the black community, and Dukakis, who appeals to a liberal and upper-income voting bloc that tends to vote. Neither meets the profile of the type of centrist candidate the regional primary was designed to boost.
"Everything about Super Tuesday has backfired," said Robert Kuttner, economics correspondent for The New Republic magazine, who praised Gephardt's trade proposals during a panel discussion here this morning.
Kuttner noted that the primary had not drawn either Robb or the man who succeeded him today as DLC chairman, Sen. Sam Nunn (Ga.), into the race, as many southerners had hoped it would, and that it might have the effect of weeding out Gore, who has positioned himself as the one Democrat who projects strength on foreign policy matters, but whose candidacy is thought by many of the leaders here as not having caught on.
Kuttner added that Gephardt had demonstrated in the early primaries that the more effective way to project national strength is through tough talk on trade, and noted that his trade positions are in tune with those of organized labor, a group whose influence the DLC was created, in part, to check.
Fulton County (Ga.) Commissioner Michael Lomax said he believed that Dukakis would do well in the urban areas of his state, but added that it would be "ironic" if Super Tuesday had the effect of putting a "southern imprimatur" on a "northeastern, ethnic liberal." He argued that a good Dukakis showing in a multicandidate, low-turnout regional primary might catapult him toward the nomination, but mask a lack of broad appeal in the region that might not show up until the general election.
There was no shortage here today of realistic talk about how difficult it will be to recapture the White House this year. Harry McPherson, a Johnson administration adviser, cited statistics showing that in the last 10 presidential elections, the Democratic candidate has received more than 50 percent of the white vote only once (1964). He blamed the "scolding tone" of the party's message.
DELEGATES ALREADY WON
DEMOCRATIC ---------------------- REPUBLICAN
Dukakis..... 54.5 ............... Bush........... 61
Gephardt.... 39 ................. Dole........... 60
Gore........ 10.55 .............. Kemp........... 35
Hart......... 0 ................. Robertson....... 8
Jackson..... 17.8 ............... Uncommitted.... 10
Needed for....................... Needed for
Nomination:. 2,082 .............. Nomination:.....1,139
DELEGATES AT STAKE
---------------------------------- DEMOCRATIC -- REPUBLICAN
March 5: S.C. Republican primary....... - ............ 37
March 5: Wyoming Democratic caucus.... 13 ............. -
March 8: "Super Tuesday"........... 1,307 ........... 803
SOURCE: Associated Press