DES MOINES — Five Democratic presidential candidates gathered here to debate the environment Sunday. All were in favor of it.
It was the fifth such session featuring Democratic hopefuls in the last eight days and the second where the focus was supposed to be on the environment, though the participants could find little to disagree about on that topic.
Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, who complained after a debate Thursday that he was seeing more of his competitors than his wife, skipped the latest debate to campaign elsewhere.
The proliferation of Democratic debates--more like joint press conferences than classical debates--has produced grumbling from candidates who feel pressured to accept at least some of the dozens of requests lest they offend key liberal special interest groups that sponsor them.
But some party leaders in recent days have suggested that the situation has become more wearisome than enlightening.
Bonnie Campbell, the Iowa Democratic Party chairwoman, said she intended to ask national party leaders to consider imposing limits on such events in part because the candidates did not have much that was new to say.
Some of them even joked about it during Sunday's two-hour session. Asked what he would do as President to fight toxic wastes, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt cracked: "Maybe we should scrap all the talk at this debate."
Sponsored by Sierra Club
The latest forum was sponsored in part by the Sierra Club, which also was a co-sponsor of last Sunday's environmental debate in New Hampshire. A spokesman for the club insisted that the two sessions were not redundant, suggesting the Iowa session would focus on problems of groundwater and pesticide pollution, which is more prevalent in this part of the country than it is in New England.
While questions were raised on those subjects, the candidates coined catchier phrases as they blamed the Reagan Administration and the Republican Party for many of the nation's and world's environmental ills.
"The current Administration has not offered leadership," said Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. " . . . They've not only appointed foxes to guard the henhouse, they've appointed owls and weasels."
Not Politically Sexy
Babbitt underscored the difficulty in trying to debate a subject that was important but not all that politically sexy. "I've never met anybody who opened a bottle of beer and relaxed and watched the sun set over the groundwater," he said.
Still, the Rev. Jesse Jackson wrung a few chuckles out of the dry subject matter. First, he said he would do his bit to clean up the environment by hiring youngsters to pick up the campaign signs of his opponents. Then, after Gore recited a long and technical description of the composition of a pollutant, Jackson looked into the television cameras and said: "Sen. Gore just showed you why he should be our national chemist, not our President."
The session was not devoid of intramural fireworks, but they usually came when the conversation strayed from the primary subject of the debate.
Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt derided the suggestion of Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis that stricter tax law enforcement would make a serious dent in the budget deficit as Reagan-style "happy-talk news." Later, Babbitt used the same description to put down Gephardt's plan to raise revenue and save energy by imposing an oil import fee.
Babbitt's wife, Hattie, was sitting in the audience, and midway through the session she was asked whether she was a regular at the debates. "Oh no," she sighed, pretending to pry her eyelids open with her fingertips.