DAVENPORT, Iowa — Six Democratic presidential candidates who gathered here Wednesday for a debate expressed sympathy for Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and some questioned whether the disclosures that fatally damaged his campaign warranted the attention they received.
In post-debate interviews, most of the candidates said they believe Biden's support will now be divided among all of them. They spoke sadly of his departure, calling him a friend. They also insisted the withdrawal of Biden, following Democrat Gary Hart's decision to resign over a so-called "character issue," will not hurt the Democratic Party.
Biden withdrew from the presidential race Wednesday in the face of disclosures that he had borrowed speech rhetoric from other politicians, had plagiarized parts of a law school paper and had exaggerated his academic accomplishments.
Debate on Urban Affairs
During their debate on urban affairs, the candidates were generally congenial. There was little criticism of one another, and little upon which they disagreed.
The debate, sponsored by the League of Iowa Municipalities, began with the moderator calling on the audience of 2,000 to give the absent Biden a round of applause. Biden had been scheduled to attend, and the program included his photograph and a short biography.
Illinois Sen. Paul Simon and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. both used part of their opening statements to express their respect and friendship for Biden and their sorrow for his troubles. The Rev. Jesse Jackson repeatedly wished Biden well in chairing the Senate hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork.
Afterward, Simon questioned whether the public is focusing too much on candidates' personal dealings and not enough on their positions.
"My gut tells me that we are devoting too much time and attention to the trivia that is scintillating but not very important," Simon said.
Gore said he does not believe Biden failed any sort of character test. Biden's unattributed use of others' lines in campaign speeches was blown "a little bit out of proportion," he said, adding that Biden's exaggeration of his academic record during a campaign appearance was "wrong but not a major error."
But the accumulation of such incidents caused so much damage that Biden would have had to campaign full time to overcome them, Gore said.
'Boom, He's Gone'
Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt said: "It's really tough to see a good guy, somebody you've been close to . . . and all of a sudden, boom, he's gone. I don't know."
Jackson said he believes Biden's departure means the voters will have "more chances to focus on fewer people," and he did not criticize the news media's handling of the Biden affair. "In this fishbowl, all issues are going to be raised," he said.
Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt said he was "sorry" about Biden's withdrawal. "I know Joe Biden and like him and think he is an honest and decent person," Gephardt said. In response to questions, Gephardt strongly denied that it was his campaign that gave the press copies of tapes in which Biden used others' lines without attribution.
Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis said he was "saddened" by Biden's predicament, but added: "I think we all know we're going to be subject to very intense scrutiny, and we've got to expect that. We all have to live with what we say and what we do."
An Iowa poll by the Des Moines Register last month indicated that Biden's support here might be divided among Gephardt, Dukakis, Jackson and Colorado Rep. Patricia Schroeder, who is expected to enter the race next week. Schroeder was to have appeared on the forum but canceled Wednesday because of a scheduling problem.
During the debate, the candidates treated each other gently. Jackson, at times, teased other candidates by name, saying he felt "victory" because they were espousing his positions.
Babbitt, who during an earlier presidential debate repeatedly bobbed his head up and down, kept it still this time. But he apparently spoke too closely to the microphone and sounded at times as though he were wheezing. Gephardt stumbled during his closing statement when he tried to quote Benjamin Franklin. After a troubled beginning, the Missouri congressman paused, recovered himself and finally spat it out.
The candidates generally called for creation of more jobs, more assistance to small business and less military spending. Simon and Babbitt supported rehiring fired air traffic controllers in the wake of airline deregulation.
Simon and Jackson appeared to get the most applause from the audience, about half of whom were municipal administrators, mayors and city council members.
After Simon called his vote against the tax revision bill "one of the best votes I have ever cast," Gephardt said, "Paul, I disagree." Gephardt said the bill eliminated tax deductions for bonds that produced the wrong kind of urban development--office buildings, hamburger stands, even a massage parlor.
Dukakis said he supports establishing high-speed rail systems in major metropolitan areas. "I was in Los Angeles just a few weeks ago," Dukakis said. "They have been trying desperately to get some help to build a $4.5-billion transit system in Southern California, a place that is so congested people are now beginning to get violent against each other. . . . And yet at the same time, we're about to spend $18 billion apiece for two aircraft carriers. . . ."