The four major Republican presidential contenders competed Thursday to deliver the starkest appeals to Southern conservatives in a fast-paced debate that was marked by testy exchanges.
And in a new format, the contenders were asked to critique their rivals’ television commercials and defend their own, an exercise that led the candidates to dispense with any pretense of Southern civility as they interrupted and shouted over one another.
Sen. Bob Dole, who leads in the most recent polls in this state, followed by Pat Buchanan, sharply cut off Steve Forbes after he and the others ridiculed him for supporting tax increases.
“Don’t malign my integrity here,” Dole snapped, noting that he fought for President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts.
“Well,” Forbes shot back, “it’s a typical Washington game.”
With no clear national front-runner, the hour-long noontime debate before an audience of business executives, televised nationally Thursday evening by CNN and C-Span, often degenerated into a game of revolving targets.
It was perhaps the candidates’ best opportunity to score points with South Carolina voters - from defending the Confederate flag to excluding women from the all-male Citadel Academy - before this state’s crucial primary on Saturday.
Seeking to stand out as the most outspoken firebrand on the stage, Buchanan, a former commentator, asserted that flying the Confederate flag over the statehouse was a symbol of defiance and courage, not racism.
“My friends, if there is room in America for the fighting song of the civil rights movement, ‘We Shall Overcome,’ then there’s got to be room for ‘Dixie’ as well.” He also said, “It didn’t fly over slave quarters - it flew over battlefields.”
The others did not touch the question, saying it was a matter for individual states to decide. But they all took issue with President Clinton and argued that the all-male Citadel should not have been forced to admit a woman.
A striking undercurrent that surfaced repeatedly was how resentful Forbes’ opponents have become over how the publishing magnate, who entered the race late and has altered the campaign with his millions of dollars in advertising.
In one of the most bitter clashes, Lamar Alexander criticized Forbes for asserting in a commercial that the former Tennessee governor grew rich by using his political connections.
“Steve, you haven’t learned a single thing in your whole campaign - you know that’s not true,” Alexander said. He told Forbes, “You should be ashamed of yourself - smearing me, smearing the other candidates.”
Forbes replied that “that was a charitable ad - that ad did not talk about some of those cozy business deals you did as governor.”
“You just wait a minute,” Alexander said, shouting, and pointing at Forbes. “My ethics have never been questioned.” He told Forbes that “you should go practice your dirty business on a race for the school board before you try for the presidency of the United States of America.”
Dole intervened, declaring, “Time out! Time out!”
The senator, in perhaps his feistiest debate performance this year, was also barely able to contain his bitterness at Forbes. At the start of the event, Dole gave him the title, “King of negative advertising.”
The comment only encouraged Alexander, who piped in, “If Steve is the king, Senator Dole is the prince.”
Between his attacks on his rivals, Dole tried to play the role of leader, and sought to turn the attention to defeating Clinton in November.
“I don’t know what these other guys are running for,” he said. “I want to be president of the United States. I don’t want an ad agency, never wanted an ad agency. I don’t run a magazine. But I do know how to make Congress work. I know how to reach out to people. I know what the country needs. That’s strong leadership. We need to defeat Bill Clinton.”
But Dole’s rivals did not spare him, noting that he too was responsible for many negative commercials. Buchanan said the senator’s commercials attacking him revealed the “hollowness of your campaign.”