Republicans abruptly ended their self-proclaimed truce on Thursday, attacking one another with relish in a new barrage of television ads and in bare-knuckled debate here.
With polls showing the race tightening just five days before Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, all four of the major candidates for the GOP presidential nomination returned to the kind of negative campaigning that colored the race in Iowa.
Their war on one another escalated through the day, first in a new round of attack television ads and then in a nationally televised debate, prompting warnings from two minor candidates that they are endangering the party’s chances in the fall campaign against Democratic President Clinton.
“We have to stop tearing at one another; … the target is Clinton,” said California Rep. Robert Dornan.
Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana said polls show all of the top candidates would lose to Clinton, the result, he said, of “self-inflicted wounds by the top four as well as wounds they inflict on one another with negative ads.”
But their pleas fell largely on deaf ears.
Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, pundit Patrick Buchanan, former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and magazine publisher Steve Forbes of New Jersey cranked up attacks against one another in an effort to elbow their opponents out of the top tier.
Dole launched new ads, attacking Buchanan as “too extreme” to be president and attacking Alexander as “liberal … not what he pretends to be.”
That drew immediate responses on Thursday night in a debate where none of the candidates appeared to make dramatic gains.
“Last week, the voters of Iowa said no to negative ads…Sen. Dole, you’re better than your negative ads, why don’t you pull them off?” challenged Alexander.
Said Buchanan: “My friend Bob Dole has an attack ad calling me an extremist…if I’m an extremist, why are you pirating my ideas and parroting my rhetoric? Where did you get that idea for the cultural war for the soul of America, my friend? Where’d you get these other ideas about corporate greed?
“Listen, I welcome the fact you’re coming my way, Bob, but I don’t think you can call us an extremist when you’ve become a pretty good echo of Pat Buchanan.”
Dole brushed aside both complaints.
“I didn’t know about negative ads until you did it against (California Gov.) Pete Wilson. You ran the first negative ads in this state,” Dole said to Alexander.
And he interrupted when Buchanan complained about a Dole ad accusing him of wanting to arm South Korea, Taiwan and Japan with nuclear weapons.
“You said it,” Dole said to Buchanan.
Later, Dole said that “Pat’s really getting carried away,” then turned to Buchanan and asked, “You have a bad day or something?”
It was a thinly veiled reference to the criticism Buchanan faced all day after reports that his campaign co-chairman had ties to white supremacist groups. Buchanan said he did not believe the reports, but that the campaign official took a leave of absence from the campaign.
Dole turned his guns on Forbes, criticizing him for using his own personal fortune to buy millions of dollars worth of negative ads.
“You got a lot of money,” Dole said to Forbes. “No amount of money can buy this election.”
One light moment came when Dole handed flattering photographs of himself, his wife Elizabeth and his dog “Leader” to Forbes, saying Forbes should use them in his next attack ads rather than the unflattering pictures he’d been airing.
Forbes, whose massive use of negative ads in Iowa fed a backlash that contributed to his disappointing fourth-place finish, started the day by saying he had made a mistake and that he would no longer attack his rivals.
But in the debate, he attacked Alexander’s personal finances, which have been the subject of critical news reports in past days.
“I was really astonished that as governor, Gov. Alexander turned $1 into $620,000,” Forbes said, referring to a sweetheart investment deal.
“You as governor invested $20 million in various scams for which you got a $1.9 million return,” he said at another point.
Between attacks, candidates tried to explain what they would do as president.
Dole promised a balanced budget, tax cuts for families with children, welfare reform, more parental control of education and conservative judges.
“I’ll be a good mainstream conservative president,” said Dole.
Buchanan promised a “new conservatism of the heart” that would fight abortion and fight for working people worried about their jobs and disappointed with their paychecks. Alexander said he wants to ship federal power back to the states. He proposed a new branch of the armed services to fight illegal drugs and illegal immigration, scholarships to replace work training programs, and a new tax credit to help people contribute to charitable groups such as the Salvation Army so they could take care of needy people instead of the federal government.
Forbes proposed a flat tax and tax cut that he said would create millions of new jobs. He asked voters to choose between candidates who “are here because they want to be something and which are here because they want to do something.”
Lugar made a direct pitch to voters to reject negative campaigns by picking him.