Union Tribune

January 23, 2004

Democrats lower volume during final N.H. debate

By John Marelius


MANCHESTER, N.H. In their final debate before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, the seven Democratic presidential candidates last night put aside the rancor of past encounters to make the case why each is best equipped to go up against President Bush.

While the two-hour televised debate at St. Anselm College was sedate and civil, several of the candidates became animated when asked how they would respond to attacks from the president and Republicans on issues such as taxes and national security.

"I am a veteran, I fought in a war. I've been a prosecutor. I've sent people to jail for the rest of their life," said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. He also referred to his environmental record and noted that he is a gun owner and hunter.

"If George W. Bush wants to stand there beside me," he said, and defend cutting "taxes for people who earn more than $200,000 a year which are the only people who might be argued will have a tax increase by rolling back the Bush tax cut that they rushed through instead of giving all of America health care and education so we truly leave no child behind, that's a fight we deserve to have in this country. That's a fight we will win."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut cited a magazine article in which Bush was quoted as naming him as his strongest potential challenger.

"And I think the reason is that the Republicans can't run their normal playbook on me that they try to run on Democratic candidates," he said. "They can't say I flip-flop because I don't. They can't say I'm weak on defense because I'm not. They can't say I'm weak on values because I'm not. They can't say I'm a big taxer and a big spender."

The debate gave former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean an opportunity to try to put behind him his fiery Iowa caucus night speech that has made him an object of comedic jabs all week.

Dean's temperament remained a subtext throughout the debate, although his rivals with the exception of one did not allude to the speech.

Dean, in a voice hoarse from a cold, said at one point that "my words are not always precise, but my meaning is very, very clear."

He added, "You know, I'm not a perfect person. I think a lot of people have had a lot of fun at my expense over the Iowa hooting and hollering, and that's justified. But one thing I can tell you is that I'm not kidding about what I say."

Later, civil rights activist Al Sharpton said to Dean: "I wanted to say to Governor Dean, don't be hard on yourself about hooting and hollering. If I had spent the money you did and got 18 percent, I'd still be in Iowa hooting and hollering."

The debate repeatedly highlighted the sharpest difference among the Democratic hopefuls the war in Iraq.

Dean, who has been off balance since his Iowa loss and the controversy over his speech, did not exhibit the combativeness of past debates. Still, he again criticized Kerry, Lieberman and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina for their votes approving the war authorization.

He even seemed to blame them for the casualties in Iraq, noting the deaths of 500 U.S. troops and the 2,200 troops who have been wounded.

"Those soldiers were sent there by the vote of Senator Lieberman and Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards," he said. "That is a fact. And I think that's a very serious matter."

He made the case that he alone among the major contenders questioned early on whether Americans were getting the straight story from the Bush administration during the buildup to the war.

"People have questioned my foreign policy experience," he said, adding that "with patience and judgment I was able to sort out that the president of the United States was not being candid with the American people."

Dean acknowledged that Saddam Hussein's removal from power in Iraq had been a positive development, but said it was a result that should have been achieved through the United Nations.

Edwards insisted there was no inconsistency between his vote to authorize military action in Iraq and his vote against the $87 billion for reconstruction.

He said he could not support the reconstruction unless it became an international effort.

"I thought it would be a mistake for me to say to the president, 'What you're doing is right, I support it, go forward, here's your blank check, come back next year and ask for more money,' " said Edwards, who finished a surprising second in Iowa behind Kerry.

Lieberman, the most enthusiastic supporter of the war in the Democratic field, stoutly defended his position.

"The Bush administration has given a bad name to a just war," he said. "But a just war it was."

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, criticized for seemingly conflicting statements about Iraq, took exception with a questioner's suggestion that an article he wrote last year endorsed Bush's actions, but only expressed support for U.S. forces.

"I did not support this war," Clark said. "I would not have voted for the resolution. But once American soldiers are on the battlefield, then I want them to be successful and I want them to come home safely."

Clark also was repeatedly forced to defend his Democratic credentials and sought to explain why he had voted for Republican presidents in the past and once had kind words for President Bush.

"I voted for Bill Clinton and Al Gore," he said. "When I got out of the military, I looked at both parties. I'm pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-environment, pro-labor. I was either going to be the loneliest Republican in America or I was going to be a happy Democrat."

The low-key tone of the debate was in sharp contrast to the contentious encounter in Des Moines a week before the Iowa caucuses.

The Iowa results were widely seen as a repudiation of the rough-and-tumble campaign tactics of Dean, who placed a disappointing third, and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who finished fourth and immediately dropped out of the presidential race.

The candidates largely focused on their own positions, rather than their opponents'.

Dean maintained that merely repealing the tax cut for wealthy Americans, as proposed by Kerry and some of the others, would not generate enough revenue to pay for the nation's pressing health and education needs.

"We can do these things," Dean said. "But we can't do them without repealing every dime of the Bush tax cut."

In response to a question about whether it is desirable for presidents to lead from the heart and not the head, Dean admitted that he often does the former. But he placed that issue in the context of his success as governor in balancing Vermont's budget.

"I think the president's unbalancing of this budget is deliberate," he said. "Half-a-trillion dollar deficit as far as the eye can see means more cuts in programs for kids, more cuts in education, more cuts in college. So, yes, I lead with my heart. I say what I believe."