DES MOINES — Although former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt still trails badly in the polls in Iowa and nationally, his better-known rivals in the Democratic presidential race attacked him with a vengeance at a debate here Wednesday night.
Babbitt has been the beneficiary of excellent press reviews lately, and he is widely cited now in the media as the "candidate of ideas" in the Democratic race.
While there is little evidence yet that such positive coverage has translated into more support from the voters, his opponents, especially Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, seemed determined to try to take Babbitt down a notch in order to stop him from building momentum in Iowa's highly volatile political climate.
Dukakis blasted Babbitt's controversial proposal for a 5% national sales tax, which Babbitt says will reduce the deficit by $40 billion to $60 billion a year. Dukakis labeled it "regressive," and charged it would increase the tax burden on the poor.
'A Republican Tax Bill'
"I think Babbitt's sales tax is a Republican tax bill, it's regressive, and I think we ought to reject it out of hand," Dukakis said. "Bruce has a lousy tax plan."
But Babbitt, who has vastly improved his performances in televised debates in recent months, fought back, charging that Dukakis has failed to offer an adequate alternative solution to the budget deficit crisis.
"It (the Babbitt sales tax) is better than your phantom tax bill," Babbitt responded, interrupting Dukakis in mid-sentence.
Dukakis, who opposes any new taxes, has said he would reduce the deficit instead by increasing the enforcement capabilities of the Internal Revenue Service. He vows not to raise taxes until an expanded IRS has had a chance to collect the more than $100 billion in taxes that go unpaid each year.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson assailed Babbitt's support for economic enterprise zones, charging that they have been used on the Mexican side of the Texas border to take advantage of cheap, sweatshop-style Mexican labor to put Americans out of work. Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, meanwhile, charged that Babbitt's policy calling for an emphasis on student loans over student grant programs would deny minorities a right to a decent education.
Although the debate before the Brown and Black Coalition, a black and Latino organization, was supposed to deal with minority issues, none of the four white candidates in attendance--Babbitt, Dukakis, Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, and Simon--appeared willing to generate any conflict with Jackson on what amounted to his home turf--a largely minority crowd.
Indeed, Jackson hardly left his competitors any room with which to maneuver; while they stressed economic revival and job creation and balanced budgets in order to help blacks and Latinos, he talked of racism and the need for greater moral leadership. Finally, he came to his bottom line: "If these candidates really wanted to help blacks, they would support Jesse Jackson for President," he said.
Others Turn the Debate
The other candidates turned the debate to suit their own ends. Afterward, Dukakis aides acknowledged that they had sought to use the forum to take on Babbitt on taxes, in part because Babbitt had been pounding away on the issue for so long. Babbitt aides said it was the first forum in which Dukakis had gone after Babbitt so directly.
The Dukakis camp denied that it did so out of any fear that Babbitt may be gaining on it in the polls, but Babbitt said in an interview later that his own polling shows he is the second choice of many Dukakis supporters in Iowa.
In a press conference after the debate, Dukakis said he attacked Babbitt simply because he believes Babbitt is wrong on the tax issue.
"I just can't imagine imposing a national sales tax as a Democratic candidate," Dukakis said. "It's regressive, it hits the middle class hard. We've been sitting around debating a national sales tax when we've just cut taxes for the wealthy again in this country."
Simon admitted later that the attacks on Babbitt showed the campaign in Iowa, now down to its last three weeks, is getting a little more serious--and cutthroat.
"I think if you get down to the closing stages of a campaign, you express differences a little more candidly," Simon said. "I did tonight with Bruce Babbitt."
Staff writer Douglas Jehl contributed to this story.