ATLANTA -- House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his Democratic opponent, cookie entrepreneur Michael J. Coles, sparred Friday night in a fiery debate in which Coles blamed Gingrich for last year's government shutdown and Gingrich repeatedly characterized Coles as a liberal.
Because the public television debate lasted only 30 minutes, the two candidates exchanged charges at a furious pace.
Gingrich repeatedly linked Coles to what he characterized as the Democratic Party's liberal leadership in the House of Representatives, ridiculed him for refusing to announce his presidential preference, and made much ado about a minor violation of child labor law committed by Coles' company.
Coles accused Gingrich of excessive partisanship, discussed the ethics investigation pending against the speaker and said that Gingrich "shut the government down, costing taxpayers $1.4 billion, because he didn't like his seat on an airplane."
That was a reference to Gingrich's acknowledgment last year that his government-closing budget standoff with President Clinton was instigated at least partly by his feeling that Clinton did not show proper courtesy to him and Sen. Bob Dole aboard Air Force One on a trip to Israel.
Polls show that Gingrich, a nine-term Republican who became speaker in 1995, has a comfortable lead in Georgia's 6th District, a heavily Republican area in the north Atlanta suburbs.
But Coles, a wealthy businessman who built The Great American Cookie Company from scratch, has waged a spirited campaign against Gingrich, thanks to a heavy advertising blitz financed largely out of his own pocket. He has portrayed himself as a moderate Democrat who favors abortion rights and a balanced budget.
Pub Date: 10/27/96