Dem Contenders Split On Iraq $$

The five Democratic White House candidates in Congress are divided on support for President Bush's $87 billion request for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rep. Dick Gephardt said Wednesday he will support the president's plan, as will Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and John Kerry of Massachusetts and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio — the only candidate in Congress who voted against going to war — say they will oppose it.

Gephardt refused to criticize his rivals for their decision, simply saying he does not think they are making the right vote. He said a vote for the bill will "send the right message and do the right thing."

"I think the responsible course here is to back up the troops in the field," Gephardt told the Associated Press.

Edwards said Mr. Bush needs to change his policies.

"I believe we have a responsibility to support our troops in Iraq," Edwards said in a telephone interview. "I believe we have a responsibility to help rebuild Iraq. But our troops will not be safer and this mission will never be successful unless the president dramatically changes course."

Kerry said in a statement, "Unless this proposal is changed to better protect taxpayer dollars and shares the burden and risk of transforming Iraq with the United Nations and the rest of the international community, then I will oppose it."

Lieberman called it an "infuriating vote." Like the other Democratic candidates, he wanted the Iraq money to come from a repeal of tax cuts given to the wealthy.

"We have 135,000 troops over there," Lieberman said while campaigning in Oklahoma. "We have to give them every dollar in support and get them home in peace."

The Democratic presidential candidates are in a corner with the $87 billion vote. They have been unanimously critical of how Mr. Bush has handled the Iraq reconstruction and a vote against the bill could help them stress their point. But the bulk of the money — about $67 billion — would pay for the military operations, and they want to support the troops.

"This kind of vote is the perfect example of why it's so difficult to run for president from the United States Senate," said Doug Sosnick, who served as political director under President Clinton. "And the fact that this is in the middle of the primary makes it even more difficult."

Many Democratic primary voters opposed the war in the first place. Elaine Kamarck, a professor at Harvard University who advised Al Gore's presidential campaign, said however the candidates vote on the $87 billion package could create problems on the campaign trail.

"They are going to have to justify the vote and they are going to have to do better than the mealy-mouthed explanations that they gave for the first vote to go to war," she said.

Asked about supporting the package, Wesley Clark, a retired general who won't have to cast a vote, said "not without lots and lots and lots of work." When pressed to clarify his position, Clark said, "I'm not ready to say I support that. Absolutely not."

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, another White House hopeful with no vote in Congress, said he would oppose the $87 billion unless Bush pays for it by repealing some of his tax cuts.

"We should support our troops," he told the AP. "If the president doesn't have a sufficient commitment to this operation to get rid of the $87 billion in tax cuts, then we should vote no."