Al Gore minces no words about his rivals' defense policies. ``Unwise,'' he says of Michael Dukakis, and ``irresponsible.'' He charges that his Democratic opponents favor ``retreat'' and ``complacency.''
Sen. Albert Gore Jr., trailing badly in next Tuesday's pivotal New York primary, hopes that the issues of foreign and defense policy will catapult him over Governor Dukakis and Jesse Jackson in the closing hours.
Over and over, Mr. Gore suggests that it is his foreign policy experience that most differentiates him from the other Democrats.
In recent years, while Mr. Dukakis was wrestling with welfare, budgets, and the economy in Massachusetts, Gore was grappling with problems like arms control, the MX missile, and the Strategic Defense Initiative.
While the Rev. Mr. Jackson was organizing his Rainbow Coalition, Gore was serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee and mastering the intricacies of negotiating with the Soviets.
``More than any other single thing, what prompted the senator to enter the race was his goal of comprehensive, verifiable arms control agreements,'' says Kenneth Jost, issues director for the Gore campaign.
``The issues are inordinately complex, and you must know the stuff to be able to negotiate with the Soviets,'' Mr. Jost says. ``Gore has done that. This is his advantage over both of the other candidates.''
Yet Gore's campaign is stuck on a plateau - overshadowed by Jackson's poetry and Dukakis's cash. New York could be Gore's last shot.
So this week, he pounced hungrily on a New York Daily News story that reported Dukakis would launch a nuclear strike against the Soviets if they invaded Europe, and US conventional weapons could not stop them.
``It is a mistake, it is irresponsible, to publicly state we'll launch our missiles and trigger nuclear war under these circumstances,'' Gore told a Long Island audience.
The Dukakis campaign quickly responded - claiming their candidate had been misinterpreted. A spokesman explained that in his interview with the Daily News, Dukakis did not say ``first strike,'' which implies an attack against the Soviet homeland. Rather, he used the term ``first use,'' which would be against frontline Soviet troops.
But Gore clearly was delighted with the opening. It raised once again questions about Dukakis's lack of foreign policy experience.
Gore has made it clear he differs from his rivals in several foreign and defense areas:
First, he would use all of America's strengths, including military power, to defend US interests abroad. He excoriates Dukakis for opposing President Reagan's deployment of the American naval forces in the Persian Gulf.
Second, he would not cripple the defense budget, which he charges his rivals would do with ``indiscriminate'' cuts.
Finally, he would not make wholesale cancellations of weapons systems, like the MX missile. ``You can't be a tough negotiator with the Soviets, if you concede weapon after weapon before you ever reach the bargaining table,'' he says.
Beyond the foreign policy area, Gore's primary emphasis would be on the federal budget deficit.
His goal: reduce the deficit by $20 billion every year for the next four years.
``In the first 90 days of his administration, he would convene a budget summit with everything on the table except social security,'' Jost says.
Gore has spelled out specific areas where the budget might be cut, and where taxes might be raised to bring spending in line with revenues.
On the spending side, he would seek savings with better targeting of farm subsidies. He would cancel some weapons systems, such as the Bradley fighting vehicle. He would give military procurement officers specialized training to improve their performance, and also give them more clout in the Pentagon.
Gore would also eliminate subsidies for ``junk'' mail, put an end to the ``below-cost'' sale of federal assets, such as timber, and eliminate unnecessary medical tests now paid for by the government. Gore's staff estimates reducing unnecessary medical tests could save billions of dollars, with $1 billion saved just by halting routine use of chest X-rays upon admission to most hospitals.
On the tax side, Gore has been ``more specific than Dukakis and more realistic than Jackson,'' Jost says.
Example: Jost points to a ``quirk'' in the 1988 tax code which causes tax rates to drop for a married couple when their income rises above $171,090. Gore wants that changed, noting it would bring in a new burst of revenue.
Gore's policies - particularly on defense - played well in the South on Super Tuesday. But so far, the cheers for his ideas have not been as loud on Broadway, or in the rest of the Empire State.