DALLAS, MARCH 5 -- Former California governor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. tonight accused Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton of staging "almost a Willie Horton" scene with black prisoners at a Georgia boot camp. Brown's charge came in an emotional exchange during a televised debate among the four Democratic presidential candidates.

Clinton indignantly denied that a photograph of him and Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) had any resemblance to the ad President Bush's 1988 campaign used to exploit the crimes of Willie Horton, a murderer who raped a Maryland woman after getting a furlough from a Massachusetts prison during the governorship of Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis.

Clinton said the boot camp is an alternative to prison that gives arrested youths a chance to "get their lives back together." But Brown insisted that the depiction of the black youths with Nunn and Clinton "looking like colonial masters" sent a message of racial bias.

Brown also accused Clinton of leading a state without a state civil rights law. "Jerry, chill out. You're from California, chill out," Clinton said. "Nobody has a better civil rights record than I do."

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and former Massachusetts senator Paul E. Tsongas stayed out of the dispute. They focused instead on outlining contrasting approaches to economic recovery. Harkin promised a public works program to reemploy a million victims of the recession; Tsongas argued that only a capital gains tax cut would spur enough investment to produce large numbers of long-term jobs.

The Tsongas capital-gains proposal brought fire from both Harkin and Clinton. Each said it was merely a continuation of discredited Republican policies. "The same old trickle-down," Harkin said.

Tsongas bristled, however, and defended his record as an opponent of President Ronald Reagan's supply-side economics during his days in the Senate. Pointing out that he was one of only 11 senators who voted against Reagan's 1981 tax package, Tsongas said, "It was obvious what Reagan and Bush were proposing was fiscal nonsense. . . . It was written on a napkin."

The debate was the only scheduled televised confrontation among the four major surviving candidates in the week preceding Super Tuesday, the busiest day on the nomination calendar, when 11 states will hold primaries and caucuses. It was shown on ABC stations starting at 11:30 p.m. in the East, but was taped earlier in the evening here.

The start of the taping was delayed 45 minutes when the candidates balked at accepting a last-minute change in the format proposed by ABC News executives. According to Donald R. Sweitzer, a senior political adviser to Harkin, Roone Arledge, the president of ABC News, and anchorman Peter Jennings told the candidates when they arrived for the taping that ABC wanted each candidate, in turn, to face 20 minutes of questioning from his opponents. "They tried to pull a fast one," Sweitzer said.

All the candidates except Brown rejected the change in format. A local ABC reporter said that in the newsroom, reporters could hear James Carville, Clinton's media adviser, threaten a walkout.

All the candidates joined in criticizing the Bush administration for what they called "a lack of strategy" for economic conversion after the end of the Cold War. Referring to laid-off defense workers in Fort Worth and Southern California, Harkin said Bush "is basically telling these people, 'Go drive a taxi. . . . Go flip hamburgers.'"

But they differed sharply on the future of U.S. forces in Europe. While agreeing that cuts are inevitable, they endorsed a wide range of permanent levels. Tsongas bid high, saying he thought 50,000 to 90,000 troops were needed to keep the NATO commitment, down from about 150,000. Harkin said he thought NATO could be phased out as a military organization, with only 20,000 U.S. troops remaining. And Clinton said "far fewer" troops were needed, but held out the possibility of using U.S. troops in an international force to restore order in Yugoslavia. Brown said he would cut the deployment to 1,000, with an equal number of European troops to be stationed in the United States. "An exchange program," he said.

Throughout the debate, Brown tried to position himself as a critic of the political system and an advocate of trade unions. When he complained that his rivals were receiving large contributions that inhibited them from fighting for working people, Harkin responded that Brown had been "one of the biggest fund-raisers in America" before "self-righteously" deciding to limit his contributions to $100. Harkin said he had more union support than anybody else in the race, "because I have been fighting while you {Brown} were on the sidelines."

While Brown and Harkin fought over the support of the liberal and labor constituencies, Clinton battled to take some of the luster off the economic policy that wins newspaper endorsements, and apparently growing support from middle-class voters, for Tsongas, Clinton's most-feared opponent. The Clinton forces regard Tsongas as a more serious threat in the upcoming primaries than Brown or Harkin -- in part because Tsongas is raising money almost as fast as Clinton these days.

Clinton said he opposed "across-the-board" cuts in capital gains taxes, advocated by Tsongas. "We had four capital gains tax cuts between 1978 and 1986 and lost 2 million manufacturing jobs," Clinton said.

"While we're having this discussion, in Japan they're investing," Tsongas said. "The net result of that is the Japanese working man, working woman, is going to have a job." Rising investment, research and development by Germany and Japan could doom American workers to low-wage jobs, he said. Without a capital gains tax cut to increase the investment pool, Tsongas said, American entrepreneurs would face a choice of going broke or selling out to German and Japanese investors.

The candidates insisted they are not intimidated by Bush's foreign policy record but ventured very little into the topic. They staked out a wide range of views on Bush's North American Free Trade agreement with Mexico. Harkin attacked the treaty vigorously, but Tsongas supported the agreement as a way to offset the power of the European Economic Community. "Our neighbors will be the common market that will allow us to compete," he said.

Clinton took the middle ground, supporting free trade, but not the Bush brand, and Brown went his own way: "I favor a totally different kind of agreement . . . negotiated by people representing the working people."

The name of a missing combatant, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, came up only once. When Tsongas began to quote from the man who dropped out of the race this morning, Clinton said wistfully, "I wish he was here tonight. I think he made a real contribution."