As CBS News Correspondent Manuel Gallegus reports, the debate looked more like target practice as the Democratic presidential contenders took aim at Mr. Bush and his handling of Iraq. It's the first of six debates sanctioned by the Democratic party before the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries in January.
The president must "go back to the very people he humiliated," said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who by the luck of the draw got the first question at a televised debate among eight of the nine Democrats seeking the party's presidential nomination.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said that "the swagger of a president who says 'bring 'em on' does not bring our troops peace or safety."
And former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri said, "We have a president who has broken up alliances that Democratic and Republican presidents have put together over 70 years."
The first major debate of the 2004 race came with Dean's rivals seeking to slow the momentum he has built in a summer surge.
Sharing a University of New Mexico stage with Dean, Kerry and Gephardt were Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, John Edwards of North Carolina, Bob Graham of Florida, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.
Al Sharpton was delayed in New York by poor weather and could not participate in the debate.
Braun, the only woman candidate, reminded the audience that Osama bin Laden, architect of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States, remained at large. "We haven't been looking for him because we got off on the wrong track (in Iraq)," she said.
Lieberman, who like Gephardt was an early supporter of the war with Iraq, said he would send more U.S. troops to help safeguard those there now and to help stabilize the country.
Graham, the only senator seeking the nomination who voted against the Iraq war resolution last fall, said he voted that way because "I thought it was the wrong war against the wrong enemy."
Gephardt drew applause from some in the audience when he stated simply, "This president is a miserable failure."
Graham said that, despite his consistent opposition to the war, he would support the administration's request for an estimated $60 billion to $70 billion to help cover continuing costs.
"We have an obligation to support those troops," Graham said.
While Dean's rivals have targeted him as the campaign's apparent front-runner, the debate got off on a cordial note, with the contenders reserving most of their fire for Mr. Bush's handling of both foreign policy and the economy.
The gathering was broadcast live on public television with a Spanish translation available and also will be aired Saturday on Univision, the nation's largest Spanish-language network, in a nod to the rising influence of Hispanic voters. New Mexico has a large Hispanic population — about 42 percent — and a Hispanic governor, Democrat Bill Richardson.
Hispanics, who number 38.8 million according to the latest census, represent about 7 percent of the voting population nationwide. In 2000, about 7.5 million Hispanics were registered to vote.
Richardson gave opening remarks, challenging "Hispanics across the country to mobilize and energize our communities for next year's election."
The event was moderated by PBS correspondent Ray Suarez and Univision anchor Maria Elena Salinas.