DES MOINES — In a rare inter-party presidential campaign debate on the vital issue of trade, Democratic contender Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri Monday challenged Republicans to be as tough in bargaining with U.S trading partners as they are in negotiating arms control issues with the Soviet Union.
His GOP adversary, New York Rep. Jack Kemp, hit back by contending that Gephardt's remedies for the huge U.S. trade deficit would invite retaliation, touch off a trade war and thus bring about a "mutually assured depression."
The hourlong confrontation at Drake University here, which will be broadcast later over C-Span cable television, presented the two candidates with a precious opportunity to gain exposure around the country and in this state, whose precinct caucuses next February are considered a bellwether for the nomination process in both parties.
From the start, Gephardt, who has shaped his candidacy around his advocacy of tough trade legislation, sought to use his advantage as a representative of the party challenging for the White House by attacking the Reagan Administration record and trying to keep Kemp on the defensive.
Charging that the Administration trade policies are "dead wrong" because they allowed foreign nations to take unfair advantage of the United States, Gephardt said: "We're the breadbasket of the world but the trouble is we're also the trade patsies of the world."
He ridiculed Kemp's contention that foreign nations would retaliate against shipments from Iowa farmers if his proposals for penalizing countries guilty of unfair trade practices against the United States, now embodied in a House bill, are signed into law. "Does anybody really think," Gephardt asked rhetorically, "that Japan will close its markets to our farm products and risk $20 billion worth of auto sales?"
And he bluntly demanded of Kemp: "Jack, why are you not as strong on trade policy as you are in negotiating with the Russians. If you were, maybe you could get those markets open."
As for Kemp--trying to escape from having to defend Administration trade policies with which, his aides later acknowledged, he does not entirely agree--he promoted his own plan for so-called free trade zones among the United States and Canada, Mexico and Caribbean nations, which he claimed could be used "to undermine the cause of protectionism in other parts of the world."
And he accused Gephardt of camouflaging his protectionist objectives behind a slick demeanor. "What Dick Gephardt is saying is so smooth and so silky and sounds so good and so reasonable, particularly with that sweet, innocent face of his," Kemp complained.
Nevertheless, Kemp contended, "No matter how he (Gephardt) pitches it, it's still protectionist."
Kemp Against Tax Hike
Kemp broadened the focus of the debate and attempted to put Gephardt on the defensive by accusing him of advocating higher taxes. "The Democratic Party and Dick Gephardt think you're undertaxed," he said. "I think you're overtaxed."
Kemp, one of the earliest advocates of the deep tax cuts that have been the main thrust of Reagan economic policy, vowed that as President that he would veto the tax increases he contended Democrats are planning to introduce after the 1988 election.
The two candidates were well protected against making the sort of off-the-cuff error that can turn such debates into a political nightmare. Each suggested two of the four questions that were the centerpiece of the debate. Both knew what all four questions were and spoke throughout from apparently detailed notes.
But not everything went smoothly. Gephardt at one point appeared to suggest that Kemp favored doing away with the Social Security system, and Kemp did not notice it until his wife, Joanne, pointed it out to him after the debate.
At a post-debate press conference Kemp called Gephardt's remarks "a cheap shot," and added: "Jack Kemp is not for abolishing Social Security. I'm the one candidate in the Republican Party who is pledged to defend Social Security, to strengthen Social Security."
On another issue, unrelated to trade, neither candidate supported the proposal made by Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah that President Reagan pardon both Lt. Col. Oliver L. North and Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter before any possible criminal prosecution is announced for their roles in the Iran-\o7 contra\f7 affair.
"I think we ought to let the judicial process work," Gephardt said in response to a reporter's question after the debate. "If they violated the law they should be prosecuted."
Kemp said: "I'd like to wait and find out if there is a charge. It's a presumption of guilt to say you're for a pardon. I wouldn't say at this point until I see what comes out of the hearings and what comes out of the special prosecutor."