DES MOINES — Six Democratic presidential aspirants debated small but significant differences on military strategies and challenged and even ridiculed each other here Sunday during an unusually spirited forum on arms issues.
Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. sought to distinguish himself as the only moderate among the Democratic presidential hopefuls, repeatedly condemning the others' more liberal stands as unrealistic.
During recent candidates' forums there has been little to separate the six leading Democrats who have been campaigning here for the Feb. 8 Democratic caucuses, the first major contest in the presidential race.
While Gore, who polls show is not doing well in Iowa, clearly emerged as the most conservative of the pack on arms issues Sunday, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt also emphasized his differences, such as on limited in-flight testing of nuclear weapons. Both Babbitt and Gore said they support such testing. The others generally oppose such testing, although not all got to comment on the subject Sunday.
After the debate, Gore said many of the more liberal views espoused by his fellow contenders at the forum were "wildly unrealistic" and would not appeal to the mainstream American public. If the Democrats want to win in November, 1988, he said, they must have a candidate who can appeal to a broad spectrum, not just the liberal activists who vote in Iowa's Democratic caucuses. Gore clearly tried to paint himself as the only candidate who can be elected.
"I thought it was me against all five of them," he said after the debate. Asked about Babbitt's willingness to differ from the rest, Gore conceded: "On a couple of issues, Bruce saw the light."
The nearly two-hour debate began with a question about the contras . Each of the aspirants, except Gore, said he opposed all aid to the contras, and would halt it if elected President.
Babbitt called aid to the contras "a slow-motion Bay of Pigs," and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis called U.S. policy in Nicaragua "one of the worst foreign policy fiascoes" in American history.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson also condemned U.S. action in Nicaragua. "If we mine the harbors of Nicaragua, we don't have the moral authority to challenge the ayatollah in the Persian Gulf," Jackson said.
When Gore got his turn, he said: "All of the others have said basically the same thing. I agree with part of it, and I disagree with part of it."
Gore said he opposes military aid to the contras but supports limited humanitarian aid until it becomes clear that the Sandinistas will live by the Central American peace agreement.
"We need a President with foreign policy experience who understands that we must deal from a position of strength," Gore said.
Illinois Sen. Paul Simon challenged Gore on his support of the MX missile. The Tennessee senator defended it as an arms control gambit that, he said, resulted in a limit on the number of missiles and led to the development of smaller, single-warhead missiles. Gore said he is in agreement on this position with Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who has removed himself from the presidential contest. The reference was a clear indication that Gore is hoping to salvage his candidacy by a good showing in the Southern primaries in March regardless of how his Iowa campaign turns out.
Gore, challenging Dukakis, charged that the Massachusetts governor favors withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea and putting them in Japan. "I wonder if anybody has asked Japan," Gore said, mockingly.
Dukakis shot back: "The first thing to do is get your facts straight," adding that he simply had said that undemocratic nations should not receive support from the U.S.
"Where those miliary dictatorships systematically deny human rights to their people, we can't just sit there doing nothing," Dukakis said. "I didn't spend 16 months of my life in Korea so a bunch of Korean generals can deny human rights to people in Korea."
Dukakis noted that South Korea is now demonstrating progress toward a more democratic government and therefore it would not be wise to withdraw troops now.
"But I think the next President of the United States is going to have to confront the issue of whether or not we are going to continue to support military dictatorships," Dukakis said. "The reason this is so important is because when we do so, we sow the seeds for radical revolution."
Gore ridiculed the notion, saying the withdrawal of American troops could invite North Korea to take aggressive action against South Korea.
Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, asked whether a reduction in nuclear forces in Europe would require a buildup of conventional forces there, said: "I don't think it necessarily does . . . . The tactical or field nuclear weapons are still there, the weapons that have a 300-mile range. So we still have the ability if we get hit with a huge conventional onslaught, to do something about it . . . . That deterrent is still there."
Babbitt sharply rebuked the Missouri congressman for this stand. "I don't accept Dick Gephardt's position that the possession of tactical nuclear weapons is an appropriate way to defend Europe. I think it's an immoral way to defend Europe," Babbitt said to the applause of the liberal audience.
"We must move as quickly as we possibly can away from the notion that we are preserving the peace by being in the position to initiate a nuclear war."
The debate was sponsored by STAR-PAC, or Stop the Arms Race Political Action Committee, which was formed in Iowa in 1980 and may endorse candidates.