In a tradition as old as bronze swords and flint pistols, Gov. Michael Dukakis challenged his detractor, Rep. Richard Gephardt, to a duel. But this one was a duel of words. For the two democrats, the debate here Saturday was another skirmish in the battle among presidential candidates to distinguish themselves from one another, especially in the key primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
The Massachusetts governor and the Missouri congressman squared off on trade, military, and energy policy.
Representative Gephardt, who sponsored an amendment to the House's trade bill labeled protectionist by some, has accused Governor Dukakis of promoting a trade policy just like President Reagan's.
``Nobody who saw that debate walks away thinking Mike Dukakis is anything like Ronald Reagan, said Walt Tully, Mr. Dukakis's issues director, after the debate.
The two debaters claimed they were not trying to play a win-or-lose game, but they certainly were not bashful about attacking each other's record.
Dukakis wasted no time accusing Gephardt of flip-flopping on his support of the MX missile, ``star wars,'' and other defense issues.
``What's the problem, Dick?'' Dukakis asked. ``... You start with a weapon system and then you stop. You can't be for the MX one day and against it the next ... you can't be for some cuts in star wars but not in others,'' he said.
``The difference between a legislator and a chief executive,'' the governor went on, ``is that you can bounce around a little bit when you are a legislator, you've got to make decisions when you are a chief executive.''
Gephardt was ready. ``On any issue, I would rather change and be right than be rigid and be wrong.''
Then the congressman made his countermove. ``I remember back in 1974 you ran a campaign saying you would never raise taxes in Massachusetts,'' Gephardt said. ``When you got to office you found you had to do it.''
When asked whether he would support Gephardt's trade bill amendment, Dukakis responded that he could tackle the issue within existing law. ``We don't need new laws, we don't need new gimmicks, we don't need new systems,'' he said.
``If you are not for a change in the law,'' Gephardt responded, ``then I predict that if you are president you'll spend four to eight years and you won't get any change on the part of the Japanese.''
Gephardt, who has focused much of his campaign on a tough trade policy, pressed Dukakis on the issue.
``I think we've got to stand up on trade,'' Gephardt said, ``to stop listening to the editorial writers, the establishment who has all the elitist ideas ... we ought to start talking to the people who are getting crushed.''
Dukakis, trying to stress his administrative experience as governor of Massachusetts, came back quickly. ``The difference between the two of us is that you want a law and I want to act - the difference between a legislator and a chief executive.''
Dukakis also disagrees with Gephardt's proposal for an oil import fee. ``The next president of the United States, working with the Congress had better get serious about requiring some of these [alternative fuels],'' Dukakis said.
``That's the way you do it ... without imposing billions and billions of dollars of additional costs on homeowners, on workers, on businesses, and on American farmers,'' he said.
Gephardt was not deterred, suggesting that the governor's approach would require government subsidies.
``I think a better idea is an oil import fee,'' he said. ``Let's get production going on oil in the southwest United States again ... raise the price [to where alternatives would be economical]. Then we'd have an energy policy.''
Interviewed later in the day at a Democratic candidate barbecue in Cedar Rapids, Dukakis said the debate was a good chance to clarify issues, but he did not see a winner or loser.
Dan Stamatelos, a Dukakis supporter, agrees. ``They are both excellent speakers and either one would be a good candidate. I think it was a draw.''
``I haven't made up my mind yet,'' said Ted Godlove, an industrial electrician.
Iowa lawyer Anne Outka said, ``I thought they were both excellent ... it made it harder to decide.''
In a story on the Iowa debate between presidential candidates Michael Dukakis and Richard Gephardt in the Aug. 10 Monitor, a member of Governor Dukakis's campaign staff was incorrectly identified as Walt Tully. The campaign official is Paul Tully, Mr. Dukakis's political director.