DES MOINES — Verbal sniping between the two leading Republican presidential candidates escalated Saturday, as Kansas Sen. Bob Dole called George Bush the "ghost of Spiro Agnew" and the vice president pressed his demand that his rivals, including Dole, release their income tax returns.
Bush also chastised Dole for criticizing him to reporters while ignoring an invitation to confront him during the televised debate here Friday night.
"He had his chance," Bush told reporters at a campaign stop in suburban Adel, Iowa. "They all had an opportunity last night and I didn't hear any of this. It's always . . . after I've left, that we get all this."
Relations between the two national front-runners--both favorites in the Iowa Republican caucuses next month--have grown caustic this week, amid allegations that Bush's role in the Iran-Contra scandal was more prominent than he has acknowledged. Dole has demanded that Bush explain his part in the operation, and Bush has sought to shift the campaign's focus by taking up the issue of financial disclosure.
The maneuver is widely seen as an attempt to weaken Dole, who has gained strength in Iowa and nationwide by portraying himself as "one of us," a poor boy from Russell, Kan. Bush staffers hope that release of the joint tax return filed for 1986 by Dole and his wife Elizabeth--which may show income of more than $500,000--will raise eyebrows in the Midwest.
The sparring Saturday stemmed from questions raised in Friday's debate, during which Bush was questioned about his role in the Iran-Contra affair and angrily responded with a broadside against the Des Moines Register, which sponsored the event.
Bush has been dogged by questions about the scandal since Thursday, when the Washington Post published a report saying the vice president had attended dozens of meetings in which American hostages in the Middle East and shipments of arms to Iran were discussed. Bush, like President Reagan, has contended that he was kept in the dark about details of the plan and was not aware that weapons were to be swapped directly for hostages.
Responding to a question from debate moderator and Register Editor James P. Gannon, Bush denied that he had failed to answer queries about the matter and opened the floor to questions right then.
Challenge to Opponents
"Have each one of these who have been shooting at me ask a question and let me answer it," Bush demanded. None of the candidates except former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. broached the subject.
But on Saturday, Dole attacked Bush for so aggressively criticizing media coverage of his Iran-Contra activities.
"It's . . . sort of the ghost of Spiro Agnew coming into Iowa and taking on the press," Dole said, referring to the vice president noted for his speeches assailing press coverage of Richard M. Nixon Administration policies. "Maybe (Bush) can get a little mileage out of this thing. . . . "
Bush, when asked to respond to Dole's comment, smiled and said: "Next question?"
Dole, talking to reporters after a Des Moines appearance, also advocated that Bush release "all the data, all the conversations" he had pertaining to the arms-for-hostages initiative. But Bush said that all the materials Dole demanded already have been turned over to the congressional committees investigating the affair.
"He (Dole) has access to everything that's been provided," Bush said. "I suggest he take a little time off from the campaign to read them."
No Comment on Meeting
The vice president added that he would be "glad" to release all of his Iran-Contra materials, including those still classified, but he would not confirm reports that he is scheduled to meet Monday with representatives of the Iran-Contra independent counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh, to be interviewed under oath.
U.S. News & World Report magazine said Saturday that it had obtained a copy of a memorandum from Bush's national security adviser, Donald P. Gregg, reporting on a meeting between Gregg and a former CIA agent who later participated in the covert supplying of arms to the Nicaraguan rebels. The magazine said there was "no proof that Bush knew of the document," but some investigators believed it may have marked the beginning of the National Security Council staff's involvement in running arms to the Contras.
In the March 17, 1983, memo, Gregg says that former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez proposed mobile air strikes against leftist rebels in El Salvador and Guatemala, with "minimum U.S. participation." The memo apparently was passed to Robert C. McFarlane, then President Reagan's national security adviser, and then to Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North. The magazine said it bears a handwritten note: "Ollie--For summary and recommendation--Bud (McFarlane)."
Bush Aide Comments
Bush spokesman Stephen Hart told the Associated Press on Saturday: "Gregg has stated he did not know of Rodriguez's involvement with the Contras until August, 1986," and added that he was "confident Gregg would not deny he was aware of counterinsurgency efforts in El Salvador."
In Iowa, meanwhile, Bush--speaking before supporters in an Adel high school gymnasium and again to reporters--renewed demands that his opponents make their tax returns public. Bush, who contends that such a release is a matter of "ethics in government," has been required by law to disclose the information. Other public officials, including Dole, have only had to sign financial-disclosure forms estimating their incomes within broad boundaries.