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Democrats Paul Tsongas and Bill Clinton clashed in a tense, dramatic exchange over nuclear power Saturday in a presidential debate that ended with a wild free-for-all that made Tsongas the favorite target.

The fireworks erupted in the closing minutes of the first of three weekend debates leading into a night of decision Tuesday, when 383 delegates are at stake in seven primaries and caucuses around the country, including Utah.Clinton, the Arkansas governor, said a Tsongas administration would build "hundreds more" nuclear power plants in the United States, reading from a Time magazine article in which Tsongas called nuclear power preferable to continued reliance on fossil fuels.

"That is a lie, that is a lie, that is a lie," retorted Tsongas, the poll leader in Denver three days before the Colorado presidential primary.

"Then just say no," Clinton responded, daring Tsongas to rule out the possibility that he would approve more nuclear plants.

Tsongas would not, and protested that the criticism was unreasonable. Clinton shot back: "No one can argue with you Paul, you're always perfect."

"I'm not perfect but I'm always honest," Tsongas shot back.

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa quickly joined in, saying, "Paul, you may be honest but I think you've been disingenuous with this audience with your answer about nuclear power."

The 90-minute debate was sponsored by the Rocky Mountain News and KUSA-TV.

The nuclear power issue could prove powerful in this environmentally conscious state as Tsongas' Democratic rivals strive to cut into his lead. After thedebate, Tsongas was defensive in answering questions about the issue, finally conceding when pressed, "What I'm saying is that nuclear has to be part of the mix."

Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska stayed out of the nuclear power debate but took issue with the "I'm no Santa Claus" theme Tsongas has been using in opposing a middle-class tax cut backed by Kerrey and Clinton, which Tsongas says will do nothing to spur the anemic economy.

"I appreciate the fact that you are not Santa Claus but you're beginning to sound like the Grinch who stole Christmas," Kerrey said.

For more than an hour of the 90-minute forum, the rivals sparred over trade and economic policy, but their exchanges were free of the nasty personal tone that has crept into the campaign in recent days.

But just as it appeared the candidates might heed the plea of party leaders to restore civility as the campaign heads into a crucial period, the exchanges turned harsh and Tsongas became the target of an acid-toned free-for-all.

Tsongas tried to restore order at the end, raising his hand like a Scout leader and asking his rivals to pledge to refrain from any future attacks or negative ads. No hands went up in agreement, and Clinton said Tsongas had started the nastiness with an ad accusing himself and Kerrey of wanting to borrow to pay for their proposed middle-class tax cut.

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown steered clear of most of the personal attacks, but said the reason his rivals were fighting over negative ads was the corrupting influnce of the big donations that pay for the ads in the first place. Brown, a strong third in polls in Denver, stressed his environmental record. "We're turning the planet into a stinking junkyard," Brown said.

After the debate, Tsongas renewed his call for a "non-aggression pact" and said the debate had disintegrated "into a campaign no one could be proud of."

Democratic National Committee Chairman Ronald Brown said he would try again to get the candidates to agree to tone it down.

Two more debates are set for today - one in Maryland and one in Georgia. In Colorado, Tsongas has a narrow lead over Clinton in polls. In Georgia, Clinton has a 2-1 lead over the former Massachusetts senator.