After a week of rapidly escalating hostilities between the Democratic presidential contenders, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas on Friday urged party leaders to negotiate a formal truce.
But peace appeared the least likely prospect as the candidates fended off old charges and unveiled new ones just four days before the latest set of electoral showdowns next Tuesday in Maryland, Georgia, Colorado and four other states.
Appearing at a breakfast fund-raiser in Beverly Hills, Tsongas called on "the leadership of the Democratic Party" to negotiate a "pact" that would ban negative advertisements in the presidential race and restrain other attacks by the candidates.
"All we're doing is playing into the hands of George Bush," Tsongas told about 200 supporters who paid $250 a plate to hear him speak. "I would hope that the leadership . . . would call upon the candidates: No more attack ads, no more defining the other candidate, just be positive in what we do."
Tsongas' call for "a nonaggression pact" came after a week of intensifying acrimony among the Democratic contenders that included Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey's assertion that controversies surrounding Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's personal life had left him unelectable as well as Clinton's denunciation of Tsongas' economic plan as "cold-blooded."
That criticism from Clinton visibly irritated Tsongas, who shares with him a willingness to break free from many of the party's traditional positions. "The fact is (that) during all of Bill Clinton's troubles, I never said a word," Tsongas said Friday. "It wasn't until I went ahead of him in the polls that he began to attack. . . . This is a kind of kamikaze approach. He's not doing as well as he expected; therefore, if he cannot get the nomination, he will try to take everyone else down with him."
The sharpening words reflect the heightening stakes in the still largely undefined Democratic contest. Between now and Super Tuesday--March 10--the candidates must compete in 23 states that will elect almost 1,300 delegates. That is more than half the number needed to win the nomination.
Tsongas' request for a break in hostilities received a warm response from Democratic National Committee Chairman Ronald H. Brown, but it was immediately dismissed by most of the other campaigns.
"This isn't Dartmouth or some debating club," Kerrey said as he campaigned in Minnesota. "It's a rough-and-tumble debate."
In characterizing Tsongas' call for a truce as "ridiculous," Kerrey added: "This is a debate where you ought to be able to bring your arguments and make them forcefully."
Appearing at a Los Angeles fund-raiser Friday night, Clinton also dismissed Tsongas' suggestion, saying the candidates should be allowed to highlight their differences on policy. "That's what campaigns are all about." he said.
At the dinner, Clinton also moved to defuse a spat with the Rev. Jesse Jackson by announcing an endorsement from a trusted Jackson adviser, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). "Tonight, my endorsement of Bill Clinton signals the possibility of a new maturity in the Democratic Party, Waters told a surprised audience. "Bill Clinton and I may not agree on every little thing, but we do agree that (he) can beat George Bush."
Earlier in the week, Jackson was the target of an angry Clinton outburst that was caught by a TV camera after the Arkansas governor received a false report that Jackson had endorsed Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a rival Democratic presidential candidate.
Before the dinner, Clinton announced an array of other local endorsements, including former Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Woo, Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner and former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Earlier in the day, Clinton media adviser Frank Greer labeled Tsongas' truce request "pure hypocrisy" because the Tsongas campaign was prepared to air a new TV ad that criticizes Clinton.
The ad was to begin appearing Friday in several areas of the country but was pulled during the day because of concerns about the accuracy of one of the charges it contained, said Edward Jesser, a senior adviser to the Tsongas campaign.
The ad's original version accused Clinton of criticizing Tsongas for proposing a gasoline tax increase even though he doubled such taxes in Arkansas; the revised version--which may not be used--will say only that Clinton "raised" the gasoline tax in Arkansas.
Jesser said that the ad may have run "on one of the soaps somewhere" before the stop order was delivered. He said the campaign did not plan to immediately resume airing the ad, but he added that could change if the other candidates continue to run their negative spots.
"We will run it if (Tsongas' truce request) doesn't have any effect," he said.