The Democratic presidential candidates shift focus to minority issues Sunday in the final campaign debate before Iowa opens the nominating season with the Jan. 19 caucuses, considered too close to call.
Eight of the nine Democrats have agreed to participate, with only retired Gen. Wesley Clark staying on the sidelines. Clark is not competing in Iowa.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, former Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton have agreed to attend the two-hour debate, where the format will allow for more and vibrant exchanges among the contenders.
The Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum — broadcast by MSNBC and hosted by the network's Lester Holt and Maria Celeste Arraras, of the Spanish-language network Telemundo — is sponsored by black and Hispanic groups to get the candidates' views on minority issues before voters make their decisions next week. Jan. 19, caucus day, also is the federal holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
With endorsements last week from former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, Dean heads into the debate with momentum, but under continued fire from rivals, some of whom took their cases against him to the Sunday television talk shows.
Dean, who attended Sunday services at a Baptist church near Waterloo, Iowa, is also trying to shift his focus, spending more time talking about his differences with President Bush than about his rivals. He told voters at a pancake breakfast that Mr. Bush has been dishonest about the Iraq war.
"On January 19 I need your help," Dean said. "I need your help to become the next commander in chief of the United States military."
In a taped interview broadcast Sunday, Dean said he would propose a cut in the payroll tax to help the middle class. Dean's proposal comes after he has been hammered for advocating the repeal of all of Bush's tax cuts, including those targeted to the middle class.
The former Vermont governor said did not have a cost estimate for the payroll tax cut because he wants to balance the budget first.
Dean and Gephardt were battling for the lead in the state, according to a Zogby tracking poll of Iowa Democrats out Sunday. Dean was at 25 percent and Gephardt at 23 percent. Kerry, at 15 percent, was competing for third place with Edwards, who was at 14 percent. All others were in single digits, according to the poll conducted for MSNBC-Reuters.
The survey of 500 Democrats who said they are likely to vote at the caucuses was taken Thursday through Saturday and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Dean had a slight lead over Gephardt in Iowa in a Los Angeles Times poll out Saturday, and Kerry led Edwards in the fight for third.
Kerry claimed momentum, too, with endorsements Sunday from three Iowa newspapers. In a reference to Dean, Kerry said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that it will be difficult in a post-Sept. 11 world for someone with no foreign policy, military or national security experience to "stand up against a wartime president and convince America that that person has the ability to make our country safe."
Edwards was riding a late boost of his own after winning the endorsement of The Des Moines Register, the state's largest newspaper. "This campaign is about gaining energy and support from Iowans every day," he said.
Lieberman, who also criticized Dean, hesitated when asked whether he would join a "stop Dean" movement if his own campaign were to fizzle out.
"I really haven't thought about that," Lieberman said on "Fox News Sunday." But the 2000 vice presidential nominee said "no thanks" to running for the position again in November.
"I had great honor and opportunity in 2000. I've done it. I have no interest in running for vice president again," Lieberman said.