Republican candidates kicked off the 1996 presidential campaign year on Saturday by shadowboxing with absent front-runner Bob Dole at a lively televised presidential debate. “I’m not going to cut a deal with Bill Clinton,”asserted Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.
Six GOP candidates sparred, mixing criticism of Dole for dealing with Democrats with sharp attacks on President Clinton.
Clinton is “the only president we’ve ever had who feels it necessary to work out his midlife crisis in public,” said former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander in the hour-long debate carried nationally by Cable News Network.
The debate took place at a GOP dinner at the state fairgrounds before an audience of 2,000 party enthusiasts.
Dole, who skipped the debate to return from Iowa to a budget meeting in Washington, regretted from afar that “I can’t be there to get beat up on.”
“But I’ve got an obligation. I think it’s fairly clear cut where my obligation lies,” he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from his plane as he returned to Washington for evening budget talks.
The first question at the debate dealt with the new budget agreement in Washington that ended the three-week government shutdown - and what the candidates would have done differently.
Gramm was quick in attacking Dole by name.
“Bob Dole said it doesn’t matter that he’s not here tonight. Maybe it doesn’t. But it does matter that he’s in Washington cutting a deal with Bill Clinton. And I’m not going to do that.”
Conservative talk show host Alan Keyes was even more blunt, saying Dole had waged “a Republican leadership that doesn’t have the guts to stand for what we really believe in.”
Six of the eight candidates on South Carolina’s March 2 primary ballot, first in the South, participated in the debate. A seventh who had accepted - publishing heir Steve Forbes - backed out at the last minute. Aides said he did not want to participate if Dole did not.
All candidates had sharp criticism of Clinton. “He zigs and he zags,” said Alexander.
To a question on whether Clinton has any admirable traits, Buchanan said: “I think the president wants to do good by his country. But he doesn’t have any core beliefs.”
The debate was a mixed-bag format, where some questions came from a moderator, some from the audience and some were posed by the candidates themselves.