Democratic presidential hopefuls clashed over taxes Tuesday in their second debate in three days, with Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt defending their calls to repeal President Bush's tax cuts despite rivals' claims that that would lead to higher taxes on the middle class.
Outright repeal "raises taxes in several ways," Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said in a debate that turned testy when the subject turned to economic policy.
Dean tartly called Kerry's argument "hogwash," and said that overall, Bush's tax cuts have added to the tax burden of the middle class.
Gephardt also went after Kerry for proposing a Social Security tax holiday for workers and their employers. "I think that's a risky proposal," he said. "I don't see how we beat George Bush if we're going to undermine the Social Security system as part of our tax system."
Kerry countered that Gephardt was referring to an early proposal that was designed to give a tax break to Americans who don't earn enough to pay income taxes.
The two-hour debate ranged broadly over foreign policy, economics, trade and other issues. The six contenders sat around a U-shaped table in a radio studio in the Iowa capital, fielding questions submitted by a listening audience. NPR's Neal Conan served as moderator.
For the second debate in a row, Lieberman seemed particularly eager to challenge Dean, saying the former Vermont governor had "said some things that are polarizing. He has represented anger. Anger has fueled his campaign," Lieberman said, offering no examples.
Also for the second debate in a row, Dean sought to strike a calm, front-runner's pose. But he showed a flash of frustration when Gephardt renewed charges that he would fail to protect Medicare.
"I will not cut Medicare. Period. I will not cut Medicare, Dick," he said. "I want to make that clear.
"We'll talk about trade later," he added. Gephardt has accused Dean of flip-flopping on the issue of free-trade agreements.
A third Iowa debate is scheduled for Sunday, reflecting the intensification of the campaign before the state's kick-off caucuses on Jan. 19. The caucuses and the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary eight days later will likely winnow the field of Democratic contenders, dispatching some of the also-rans to the sidelines while other contenders advance to later contests.
The stakes in Iowa are particularly big for Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader who won the caucuses in a previous bid for the presidency in 1988. He has predicted flatly on numerous occasions he will win again, and his aides acknowledge that he must.
But public and private polling indicates Dean has pulled even or perhaps ahead in the state. Additionally, Kerry and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina are both campaigning exhaustively in the state, hoping for a late surge. Lieberman and Wesley Clark have both decided to skip the caucuses, looking to New Hampshire and other states to propel them to the nomination.
Dean, Gephardt, Kerry, Lieberman, Braun and Kucinich of Ohio participated in the debate, while Clark, Edwards and Al Sharpton did not.
Dean began his day in New Hampshire, where he picked up the endorsement of former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who lost his battle for the Democratic presidential nomination to former Vice President Al Gore in 2000. Gore endorsed Dean last month, one of a series of events that helped burnish the former Vermont governor's credentials as the front-runner for the nomination to challenge President Bush this fall.
The former Vermont governor referred to the twin endorsements at one point, saying that he alone is able to attract supporters across the Democratic spectrum.
"If I can begin to breach the gap between Bill Bradley and Al Gore, and bring in people who have served long periods of time in Washington, and all the enthusiastic supporters we have, then I think I may be the right candidate to beat George Bush," Dean said.
The first segment of the event was more panel discussion than debate as all six of the Democratic hopefuls lashed Bush's foreign policy.
Dean said Bush was pursuing a policy that will "allow North Korea to become a nuclear power," Kerry said the president has failed to give enough emphasis to nuclear nonproliferation and Lieberman said Bush has been "woefully disengaged" from efforts to reconcile India and Pakistan, two countries at dagger-point on the Asian subcontinent..
For his part, Gephardt said that if he wins the White House, he would reverse Bush's program to develop of tactical nuclear weapons and limit work on a missile defense shield to research, at least for the time being.
Kucinich reminded the others debate that he is the only candidate to oppose the war in Iraq and call for the withdrawal of American troops there.
Two of the Democrats suggested amendments to the Constitution in the opening moments of the debate.
Kerry said the country "may have to have a constitutional amendment" to allow for broader campaign finance reform legislation.
And Braun said the Electoral College should be abolished, and that the president should be elected on the basis of the popular vote alone.