In a sometimes funny, sometimes snide, but always lively debate five days before the New Hampshire primary, the Republican candidates for president clashed Thursday night over the serious issue of isolationism and bickered over who had run the most negative commercials.
Some of the sharpest exchanges in the debate at WMUR-TV, the Manchester ABC affiliate, came over free trade _ a testament to the growing strength of Pat Buchanan, who is fighting Bob Dole for first place in the New Hampshire polls.
Buchanan, Alan Keyes and Morry Taylor criticized the NAFTA and GATT treaties and called for retaliation when other nations try to undercut American products. Dole, Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes and Richard Lugar defended the treaties.
Buchanan _ who mentioned Florida tomato growers as one group suffering from unfair trade by Mexico _ criticized Dole for agreeing to financial assistance to Mexico. He said it was only to help big U.S. banks to whom Mexico owed money: "Why didn't you let those fellows test the magic of the marketplace?"
Dole, the Senate majority leader, answered that the problem isn't the treaty, but the failure of the Clinton administration to enforce its terms. "I'll use the weapons Congress gave me to make sure we got a fair deal," he said. And if Mexico collapsed, the United States would suffer from millions of more illegal refugees, he argued.
"It's going to be repaid," Dole said of the Mexican assistance. Buchanan shot back: "Lotsa luck, Bob."
"Pat's really gotten carried away tonight," Dole said, turning and asking, "Bad day?"
Forbes said he would try to negotiate a free trade agreement with Japan.
"We tried high tariffs in the past. We tried isolationism in the past," he said. "And we got a Great Depression as a result."
Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee, said the answer was to compete in new areas. As governor, he said, "I kept my focus on the job spigot, not the job drain."
Next to trade, the most often argued issue was which of the candidates was most guilty of negative campaigning.
Alexander went after Dole in his opening remarks: "Sen. Dole, you're better than your negative ads. Why don't you pull them off?"
Dole, in his turn, replied: "I didn't know about negative advertising until I saw you do it."
Buchanan _ called an extremist in Dole's commercials _ accused Dole of shifting to the right just to win votes with some of the TV commentator's own stands. "I don't think you can call me an extremist when you've become a pretty good echo of Pat Buchanan," he said.
Forbes said it was a mistake to have attacked his opponents in Iowa, where he finished a disappointing fourth in Monday's caucuses. But he also launched a new attack on Alexander, who has been calling Forbes a "Wall Street insider."
Forbes noted that Alexander once made $620,000 off a $1 investment in Tennessee, much better than even Hillary Clinton's much-mocked profit. Of Alexander's "ABC" slogan, "Alexander Beats Clinton," Forbes said he must be referring to Hillary, not Bill. Alexander shot back that at least he had made public his tax returns, so the public can see how he made his money.
"Steve, why don't you disclose your taxes?" Alexander said. Forbes has refused to do so, and after the debate, Forbes suggested Alexander change his campaign theme song to "Alexander's Ragtime Scam."
Dole also hit at Forbes, saying, "We do have a right of self-defense in this country." Adding that Forbes had been running unflattering pictures in his ads, Dole said, "I brought some pictures," and handed them over to Forbes. When Forbes tried to say something about "pretty pictures" not being the answer, Dole said, "I know your problem, Steve."
It was cause for despair for the other candidates. Lugar noted that both Dole and Forbes lose overwhelmingly to Clinton in current polls. "We're going to have to have somebody to pick up the pieces" after the war, he said.
"This campaign already has so demeaned the political process that Americans wonder what kind of party we have," said Lugar, a U.S. senator from Indiana.
And long shot candidate Bob Dornan, a California congressman, played the role of comic relief and statesman, taking the chance to show a picture of his newest grandchild and remind his rivals of Ronald Reagan's famous dictum against Republicans smearing each other.
"I wish the spirit of Ronald Reagan would descend on New Hampshire, and no Republican would speak ill of another Republican," Dornan said.
One potential voter agreed. "I think the White House must be gleeful," said Lovering Hayward, 54, an independent of Dunbarton, N.H.
"I don't see a candidate here that I am comfortable with," said Abigail Beutler, 65, a Republican from Nashua.
Meanwhile, the candidates already in Congress said the Republican leadership has been doing as well as it can against President Clinton, but the outsiders criticized Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich for losing focus.
"They lost a sense of vision in Washington," Alexander said. Forbes criticized Republicans for not reforming the tax code, "a cesspool of special interests." And Keyes said Republicans must focus on moral issues, not budgets: "They've started groveling over money."
Lugar said the Republican Congress has mismanaged its perception among the American public on the environment, education and the social safety net.
Several of the candidates agreed that Congress should consider an alternative to Social Security for young Americans, a form of individual retirement accounts.
New Hampshire holds the first primary election in the nation, on Tuesday. Dole and Buchanan are fighting each other in the polls for first place; Alexander and Forbes are in a dead heat close behind the front-runners.
The scene outside WMUR's studios near downtown Manchester was a near-riot. Hundreds of supporters and demonstrators pressed against the barricades on Commercial Street, waving signs and chanting slogans in the New Hampshire night as a light snow fell.
Besides the campaigns, causes of every kind were represented. The hardy crowd shouted competing slogans: "What we do we want? Health care," and "Dole '96" (which was answered by, "Dole is 96").
A protester in a pig costume demanded higher taxes on meat. Anti-Forbes demonstrators rented a limousine that pulled up grandly and spilled forth a group of people with fake stomachs and whiskers drawn on their faces _ fat cats.
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.