DES MOINES — Democratic presidential candidate Paul Simon got a taste of the pitfalls of front-runner status in a forum here Thursday as his opponents sharply attacked his support of a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget.
In a forum sponsored by the American Assn. of Retired Persons, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt began the charge by questioning how the Illinois senator intends to pay for the social programs he supports. Babbitt is the only candidate to call openly for a tax hike to reduce the federal deficit.
"Sen. Simon says, 'Pay as you go,' " Babbitt said, mocking Simon's support of user fees to help cut the deficit. "But he has a tendency to drive past the tollbooth without putting anything in."
Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt picked up the theme by singling out Simon's support for a balanced budget amendment. Addressing his remarks to Simon, Gephardt said he believes the Illinois senator's "heart is in the right place" but described his position as misguided. Gephardt, noting that such an amendment is supported by President Reagan, contended it would undermine programs for senior citizens. "I hope you will reconsider," Gephardt said. "I don't think it's right."
Attack by Dukakis
Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis weighed in by attacking a balanced budget amendment as worthless. "Balanced budget amendments aren't worth the paper they're printed on," Dukakis said. "There are a million ways to get around a balanced budget amendment."
Simon, addressing the 1,200 in the audience, attributed the criticism to his first-place showing in an Iowa poll released Sunday.
"I gather there may have been a poll taken somewhere," Simon said to the laughter of the audience. "I seem to be a target around here."
Simon told the audience that Thomas Jefferson supported an even more restrictive amendment to the Constitution to balance the budget. The government this year will spend $203 billion on interest to finance the deficit, he said, and the eventual savings from a balanced budget would pay for more social programs. He said a jobs program he supports to provide temporary government jobs for the unemployed would cost $8 billion in its second year, "a fraction of 1% of the total budget."
Scores Gephardt's Stance
Turning on Gephardt, Simon shot back: "Maybe if he had not voted for Reagan's tax plan in 1981, maybe we would not be in the kind of problem we're in now."
Simon said the jobs program would help reduce the deficit by taking people off welfare and unemployment compensation. He has also advocated cuts in military spending and more user fees.
Although he fended off the attacks in the forum with humor, his espousal of both expanded social programs and a balanced budget amendment is expected to draw continued challenges as the campaign progresses. In addition to the candidates, a member of AARP asked him to explain how he would pay for such projects as his jobs program.
After the forum, Simon acknowledged that the challenges probably will continue. He smiled but seemed less upbeat than usual. "It's right, it's good," he said of his stand on the budget amendment.
The five candidates at the forum agreed that long-term health care for the elderly must be improved, and they all opposed cutting cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients. (Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. was attending a fund-raiser in Florida and did not participate in the forum.)
But unlike the rest, Babbitt said he favors reducing benefits to wealthy elderly recipients. He said he supports taxing Social Security payments for high-income recipients and proposed a "needs test" for recipients of other federal programs. The savings, he said, could be used to expand benefits for those most in need.
"We've got to have the guts to talk honestly about how we're going to pay for it," Babbitt said.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said he might support raising taxes to provide for better long-term care for the elderly "if I were convinced that it would in fact solve the problem."
A statewide poll released Sunday of Democrats likely to attend Iowa's Feb. 8 presidential preference caucuses showed Simon the first choice of 24%, followed by Dukakis with 18% and Gephardt with 14%. The campaigns of his opponents attributed Simon's Iowa popularity to his early name recognition here, particularly in southeast Iowa, which shares the Illinois media market.
His campaign has portrayed him as an old-style Hubert Humphrey Democrat, an image that plays well with Iowa's liberal Democrats, and his age is even cited as a factor in his popularity. At 58, Simon is the oldest of the Democratic candidates, and more than half of those who vote in Iowa's Democratic caucuses are over 50.