BOSTON — Six of the seven Democratic presidential candidates tangled Monday night for their third debate in as many days, battering each other wearily as the tight race approaches its first vote.
For the second night in a row, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee dominated much of the discussion--but took several shots in exchange. Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis offered a stout defense in his hometown, repeatedly challenging his rivals to match his record.
And former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado energetically joined the debate for the first time. As if to symbolize the change, he wore a gray pinstriped suit instead of the more casual tweed sports jacket he wore in previous debates. He also met reporters with the other candidates for the first time after the forum.
29th Debate in Campaign
The 90-minute debate was sponsored by the Boston Herald and WBZ-TV and was held in historic Faneuil Hall, the so-called "cradle of liberty." The hall, which has seen political debates and oratory since before the Revolution, was host to what a Dukakis aide said was the 29th debate of the 1988 Democratic campaign.
Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, the seventh Democrat in the race, did not attend because his father, Paul S. Babbitt Sr., died Sunday evening in Flagstaff, Ariz.
But the other six bickered repeatedly in what sometimes seemed a free-for-all, each trying to score points with television audiences in Iowa and New Hampshire. The Iowa caucuses are only two weeks away, on Feb. 8, followed by New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary on Feb. 16.
In response to a panelist's question, Gore criticized the current nomination process as "madness." Gore, who withdrew from the Iowa caucuses last fall after his campaign failed to catch on, said 97% of Iowa voters don't participate in the caucuses.
Suggests Rotating States
"The first change I would have is not have Iowa as the first step," Gore said. He suggested changing the first primary or caucus state each political season.
With some of the other 3% of Iowans presumably watching, several other candidates were quick to express their affection for the Hawkeye state and campaigning in its wintry charms.
Another questioner asked: "Who is the real Richard Gephardt," saying the Missouri congressman had "flip-flopped" on such issues as abortion, busing, the draft and the MX missile. Gephardt's chief rival in Iowa, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, has issued similar attacks on Gephardt in recent days, calling him "inconsistent on the issues."
"All of us in political life re-examine issues as we go along," Gephardt replied. He added: "I'd rather be right than rigid and wrong."
Attacks Gore Stance
Gephardt was put on the defensive repeatedly for his farm and trade policies. And he accused Gore of trying to win votes by sounding more bellicose than his record in Congress would suggest.
"Lately you've been sounding more like Al Haig than Al Gore," Gephardt said to laughter in the hall.
Saying that Israel is "trapped in a death grip" with Palestinians, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for U.S. action to bring the two sides together. "If we're really Israel's friend, we'll free them of the burden of occupation," he said. He did not elaborate.
Hart was even more critical. "I think Israel is wrong," he said. By not acting, he added: "We've got some blood on our hands as well, and I blame this Administration."
Denies Reports on Funds
Hart, whose supporters cheered loudly whenever he spoke, denied a question about news reports that he had accepted allegedly illegal campaign contributions.
"I cannot respond to anonymous charges about anonymous contributors," Hart said. "I have never consciously or knowingly violated any campaign finance laws, and I never will."
Dukakis came to Hart's defense, saying both had refused to take political action committee (PAC) money in their campaigns. But moments later the two tangled when Hart said he was "surprised" that Dukakis hadn't prepared a proposed federal budget as part of his campaign.
'Naive' View of Budget
"You've never voted for a balanced budget in your life," Dukakis shot back. He added that given the uncertainties of the economy, "it's very naive" to prepare a budget for 1989 now.
Dukakis, who had kept a low profile in the previous night's debate, was more forceful on his home turf. He goaded several of his rivals into near frenzy by saying: "It wasn't only the President who walked away from the homeless. It was also the Congress. What were you folks doing the last seven years?"
Hart bristled, saying: "Don't lecture me." And Gephardt, Gore and Simon angrily defended their efforts to fight President Reagan's cuts in social programs.
"See no evil, hear no evil, do no evil," Dukakis told the audience with a broad grin, as his rivals competed to be recognized and heard.
But Terry Michael, Simon's press secretary, summed up the evening with the perspective of a man who has seen his candidate survive on airplane food and little sleep for weeks on end.
"I think they were all a little punchy," he said.