WACO, Tex. — Rep. Richard A. Gephardt kicked off his campaign for the South Wednesday by going on the offensive, repeatedly lambasting his leading rivals on their claims of competence and strength.
In a biting speech that laid out his strategy for the stump, the Missouri congressman charged "there is hardly a dime's worth of difference" between Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. on major economic issues.
"Gov. Dukakis talks competence; Sen. Gore talks strength," Gephardt said over and over again. "But there is nothing competent or strong" about their trade, energy, agricultural or budget policies.
The address, delivered at a breakfast here, represented Gephardt's sharpest criticism yet of his opponents and underscored the campaign's growing confidence in the effectiveness of his anti-Establishment, populist message. In a comparison to their platforms, Gephardt sought to portray his message as the only one capable of bringing the Democrats to victory in November.
Doubts New Toughness
He charged that Dukakis has the most money and the "least message," and accused him of promoting a new toughness in foreign policy "disconnected from the reality of his own record." Dukakis opposes the Midgetman missile, Gephardt said, even though "every leading Democrat," from Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn to Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, supports it.
"His experience in foreign policy consists almost entirely of negotiating with the governor of New Hampshire over the issue of nuclear power," Gephardt said.
He complained that Gore "appears more interested in discussing where he comes from than where he stands" and belittled the senator's campaign as one of "tactics."
Only the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who is expected to carry the black vote in the March 8 Super Tuesday primaries, was spared attack. Gephardt, who appeals mostly to conservative and blue-collar Democrats, does "not compete for the same vote" with Jackson, the congressman's deputy campaign manager, Joseph Trippi, said later.
Gives Jackson Credit
"While I may disagree with Jesse Jackson in a number of important areas," Gephardt said, "let me say in fairness that he is speaking to fundamental questions--and he surely does have something to say about them."
Previously, Gephardt's speeches have focused mainly on getting his message across, attacking the "Establishment" rather than his opponents. Aides said his Texas speech launched a new phase of the campaign in which he will try to preempt his opponents' criticism by attacking first.
In a brief interview, he said he is going to continue to criticize his opponents by name on the stump. "I think that when you're trying to talk to voters in 20 states in one day, you've got to get them to see what the real distinctions are on the issues, and we have some strong differences. . . . I think I've got to be able to say where I am, and where they are, and why I think the approach I'm advocating is the best."
Long List of Targets
Gephardt's opponents, however, were not the only targets of his wrath. In his speech he blamed "speculators, corporate raiders and agribusiness conglomerates . . . foreign powers and private interests" for robbing the United States of control of its destiny.
"We are literally selling off America, farmland and city blocks alike, to foreign investors who can buy at a bargain rate--and who have bought $1.3 trillion worth of American assets since 1974," he said.
He derided Dukakis and Gore for opposing his trade policy, which calls for negotiations with countries that restrict U.S. goods and imposition of sanctions if they refuse to lift the barriers.
On farming, Gephardt said Gore has opposed his bill to permit farmers to set production controls on crops and charged that Dukakis has "waffled" on it.
"He says one thing in New England and another in the South and the Midwest," Gephardt said of Dukakis. "And at one point, he even suggested that one solution to the farm crisis was for farmers to diversify--to grow blueberries, flowers and Belgian endive."
Gephardt also belittled Dukakis' plan to reduce the budget deficit by increasing taxpayer compliance and accused Gore of offering no budget policy.
Fears Post-Election Cures
"The Gore-Dukakis approach is worse than an evasion," he said. "It invites a post-election round of income tax increases and federal cuts in Medicare and Social Security--which is the standard prescription of too many editorialists and elites.
"I am not their candidate. I have not been a favorite of the Establishment editorialists. Michael Dukakis is. I have not been endorsed by the neo-liberals of the New Republic (magazine); they have endorsed Albert Gore."
Another example of Gephardt's new offensive is a three-page "fact sheet" documenting inconsistencies in Gore's record.
The packet, called "Zig Zags by Albert Gore," is intended to embarrass Gore and stop him from attacking Gephardt's shifts on such issues as abortion.
Grain Embargo Example
It says, for example, that Gore voted to extend the grain embargo against the Soviet Union in 1980 but now says in his campaign literature that the embargo "unfairly put farmers on the front-line of a trade war."
Written by Gephardt aide Mark Johnson, the packet contains a section called "Disguising His Votes" and includes a newspaper clipping about inconsistencies in Gore's record and a cover press release.