DURHAM, N.H. — The seven Democratic presidential candidates traded jabs and gibes for two hours Sunday afternoon in one of the most contentious debates of the 1988 campaign.
The two putative front-runners, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, came under the most sustained attack for their proposals on taxes and trade.
But the sparks flew fastest when Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. attacked former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt's proposed 5% sales tax as "inherently regressive" and "essentially a Republican idea."
Babbitt, who was the most aggressive and critical of the candidates, repeatedly interrupted Gore to deny the charge. "That's across the line," he sputtered angrily. "No one's ever questioned my credentials as a Democrat."
"Then don't put out a Republican idea," Gore quickly replied.
The two-hour nationally televised debate at the University of New Hampshire was sponsored by the state Democratic Party. With barely two weeks until the Feb. 8 Iowa caucuses, it was the fourth debate in the last 10 days, with a fifth scheduled tonight in Boston.
The testy tone was set at the outset, when moderator John Chancellor of NBC News introduced former Sen. Gary Hart in part by saying Hart's reborn campaign had "answered the question posed in the song, 'Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May?' "
Hart glowered at the apparent reference to his celebrated dalliance with Miami model Donna Rice last May. Moments later, he explained his budget proposals and then added sharply: "I think that's a lot more important than the questionable taste of your introduction."
Chancellor said he was referring to Hart's "love of the Democratic Party," and had not meant to offend.
But when each candidate was questioned by a student in the audience, a youth identified as Jay Gould of Peabody, Mass., pointedly asked Hart how voters could trust him given his "escapades in Bimini," "recent admission of illegalities of campaign financing" and "compromising positions that could lead to blackmail."
'Lead a Good Life'
"I've tried to lead as good a life as I could," Hart said evenly. "Not a perfect life, by any means, not a life without error or mistake. But as good a life as I could."
He said the question of his judgment should be framed in terms of his opposition to the Vietnam War, and his votes against the MX missile and Reagan economic policies. He said allegations of illegalities in his campaign are "absolutely false."
Won Upset in 1984
Hart has held high hopes for his campaign in New Hampshire, where he won an upset against Walter F. Mondale in 1984. But he has sunk quickly in recent polls here and in Iowa.
Nearly all the candidates criticized Gephardt's proposed trade bill, which would give the President broad power to impose sanctions against trading partners in world markets.
"Protectionism is a retreat from Democratic tradition," Gore said. Added Hart: "The worst old idea I've heard of in this campaign is protectionism."
Gephardt denied the bill was protectionist. He insisted that questioners, including both Chancellor and an economics student who asked if his proposal wouldn't lead to "deep depression," simply did not understand what his bill would do.
"The evidence is when we stood up, the other countries opened up," said Gephardt, who has taken a narrow lead in recent Iowa polls.
Another student, Dan Fasciano of Boston University, questioned the Rev. Jesse Jackson on his inexperience in government and financial irregularities in his Chicago-based community activist group, PUSH.
Jackson said that four presidents had been elected without prior elective experience, and said his abilities as a leader outweighed his relative inexperience. "What does a President do except lift the moral tone of a country?" he asked.
Dukakis, who leads in polls here, was relatively restrained in the debate, but came under fire for his repeated references to his state's economic boom.
"Gov. Dukakis seems to say sometimes that since Massachusetts has a 2.9% unemployment rate, he should be President," Gore said. By the same token, he noted, New Hampshire has 2.1% unemployment and no one on stage was suggesting the Republican governor, John H. Sununu, be elected President.
Dukakis acknowledged that "the Massachusetts Miracle isn't instantly transferable," but said that the state's innovative ideas were adaptable.
Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, who has attacked Gephardt repeatedly in Iowa in recent days, was the least argumentative here.
Telling the students they may not remember Hubert H. Humphrey, Simon quoted the late Minnesota senator and vice president in one of the debate's few moving moments:
"You and I are engaged in an experiment whether we can have peace and freedom and justice and opportunity on this small planet," Simon said. "My friends, that's what the ball game is really all about."
Staff writer Eileen V. Quigley in Durham contributed to this story.