MANCHESTER, N.H. — Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, winner of last week's Iowa precinct caucuses, came under a drumfire of criticism in a televised campaign debate Saturday from Democratic presidential rivals determined to block his progress in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.
Gephardt maintained his composure as he fought back, accusing Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, who finished second to him in Iowa, of "going over the line" with television commercials citing Gephardt's changes in position. The Missouri congressman complained that the TV ads "questioned his motives" and implied that he was untrustworthy.
But by putting Gephardt on the defensive at the start of the hourlong debate, carried over public television and Cable News Network, his adversaries made it hard for him to get across his message and gain support in a state where he is relatively little known.
Cites Tax Bills
Simon began the criticism by saying that "a primary is when you express differences" and adding that he and Gephardt differed over the 1981 and 1986 tax bills that Gephardt supported and Simon opposed. Simon contended that both bills "reduced taxes for the wealthy and did a lot of other damage," including creating the budget and trade deficits.
Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, who finished third in Iowa but is far out in front in polls here, followed up by sniping at Gephardt, although he did not directly mention him, for accepting campaign contributions from political action committees, which Dukakis does not take.
"You can't beat up on the Establishment," said Dukakis, referring to Gephardt's efforts to portray himself as an outsider and critic of the powers that be, and "take their money."
Then it was Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr.'s turn to go after Gephardt. "I find it amusing," Gore said, that Gephardt took personal offense at Simon's commercials in view of the fact that Gephardt's campaign manager, William Carrick, had attacked him personally in a newspaper interview. Carrick had referred to Gore and his associates as "the phoniest two-bit bastards that ever came down the pike."
Gephardt, saying Carrick regretted the remarks, apologized to Gore.
"What your campaign did in attacking me was personal and profane," Gore said. "What Paul Simon has done was simply spell out the record. You ought to respond to the substance of Simon's commercials rather than take it personally."
Position on Tax Cut
Next, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt jabbed at Gephardt for changing his stance on his vote for the 1981 Reagan tax cut. Gephardt has in the past generally defended his vote by saying he initially opposed the bill but voted for it as a last resort. In remarks here to a Democratic dinner Friday night, he appeared to sound more enthusiastic about the measure.
"That's not a flip-flop," Babbitt said. "That's a triple back somersault with a half twist."
When it was his turn to speak, Gephardt said: "I'm beginning to feel that when we're through with this I'll be ready for Bob Dole." His reference was to the Kansas senator and contender for the Republican presidential nomination, who is celebrated for his barbed wit and abrasive manner.
Gephardt, who called Simon's ads "distorted," conceded changing his mind and his positions on issues but argued pointedly to Simon that the Illinois senator also had changed at times. "You endorsed Tom Dewey in 1948," Gephardt said, "and now you base your campaign around Harry Truman. You change your mind, and I respect that."
Gets Help From Hart
Gephardt also got some indirect help from another candidate, former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart. Hart interrupted Dukakis while the Massachusetts governor was saying Gephardt's proposal for an oil import fee was "a terrible idea" that would put much of the revenue collected "into the pockets of the big oil companies."
"Why are the big oil companies against it then?" demanded Hart, who also favors an oil import fee and at the debate made his most impressive performance since he resumed his candidacy last fall.
"You ask them," Dukakis retorted.
"What is your energy policy?" Hart persisted. "I know what you're against; I don't know what you're for."
Babbitt broke in too, saying that the oil duty would raise money, although he argued "it's the wrong way to raise it." "But the fact is that at least he has an idea," Babbitt told Dukakis. "Where's your budget plan?"
Dukakis later referred to his proposal to tap into some the $110 billion in uncollected federal taxes as a major approach to reducing the budget deficit.
Jackson Avoids Attack
For his part, the Rev. Jesse Jackson refrained from attacking Gephardt, but he sought to minimize Gephardt's complaints about the tone of the criticism from others.
"It's campaign fatigue, this tit for tat, arguing about how bruised I am," he said. "You have to have a tough mind and thick skin to run for President."