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Iraq A Hot Topic In Dems' Debate

Democratic presidential hopefuls, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., left, talks to Rev. Al Sharpton prior to the candidates debate, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2003 at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbet, Pool)
AP
Sen. Joe Lieberman accused Howard Dean in a campaign debate Tuesday night of turning his back on Israel, and the Democratic presidential front-runner shot back that he and former President Bill Clinton held the same view on the issue.

"It doesn't help...to demagogue this issue," Dean quickly added in the sharpest clash of the young Democratic debate season.

Two days before the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Democrats criticized President Bush's handling of the war on terror at the same time they began to sketch out their differences on foreign policy.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio criticized Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri for voting to support the war in Iraq.

Without mentioning any names, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida attacked Democrats for voting for the same legislation, saying they "gave the president a blank check."

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, one of those to support the measure, defended his vote as necessary to show Saddam Hussein that the United States was serious about the need for international weapons inspectors to operate freely in Iraq.

Dean, the former governor of Vermont, has been the phenomenon of the nominating campaign to date, drawing huge crowds, displacing Kerry atop the polls in New Hampshire and raising more money than his rivals.

That has his foes looking for ways to slow his momentum, as Lieberman's attack showed.

The 2000 vice presidential candidate, Lieberman said comments Dean made last week about the Middle East "break a 50-year record in which presidents, Republicans and Democrats, members of Congress of both parties have supported our relationship with Israel."

Lieberman, who is Jewish, added that Dean "has said he would not take sides" in the Middle East, "but then he has said Israel ought to get out of the West Bank and an enormous number of settlements" should be demolished.

"I'm disappointed in Joe," Dean said. "My position on Israel is exactly the same as Bill Clinton's."

The debate was held on a stage at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, and hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus. Brit Hume of Fox News Channel handled moderator's duties.

Not all the issues were weighty. One questioner asked the nine would-be presidents to name their favorite song. "Changes in Attitude, Changes in Latitude," a tune by Jimmy Buffet, said Graham.

Several of the contenders criticized Bush over domestic issues.

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said the president couldn't find more money for education and health care at the same time he was seeking billions more for the war on terror.

The Democrats were at pains to stress their support for civil rights and other concerns to blacks — although Al Sharpton said black voters shouldn't allow themselves to be taken for granted.

"We need to correct the party so we can beat Bush with one expanded pie," he said in remarks critical of Democratic attentiveness to black concerns.

But international affairs dominated the debate.

Alone among the nine, Kucinich said he would vote against Bush's call for $87 billion more for postwar Iraq.

With the second anniversary of Sept. 11 looming, several of the Democrats criticized Bush's stewardship of the war on terror.

Kerry charged the president with an "act of negligence of remarkable proportions" for failing to have a postwar plan in Iraq, and Lieberman said the Bush administration has "no exit strategy."

Sharpton was as unstinting as anyone in his criticism. He said Osama bin Laden has escaped capture for two years after the attacks by al Qaeda. "This guy has out more videos than a rock star, but George Bush's intelligence agencies can't find him," he said.

Dean said he wouldn't withdraw any of the American troops now in Iraq. But, he said it was a mistake to go to war in Iraq, and Bush should have focused his energies on building democracy in the Middle East instead.

Kucinich took an opportunity to jab at Gephardt after the Missouri congressman had just finished an impassioned attack on Bush's handling of the postwar period in Iraq.

Kucinich looked at him moments later and said, "I wish you would have told him no" when he asked for advice before going to war.

Gephardt supported the administration's policy in the run-up to the war, at a time when he was the Democratic leader in the House and thus a prominent spokesman for his party. Kucinich voted against the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq.

The debate was interrupted several times by protesters in the hall. "This is crazy," said Sharpton, a man who first rose to prominence as a civil rights street activist.

Last week's debate was sanctioned by the Democratic Party. The CBC insisted on its own session, even without the party's blessing, and the candidates agreed to come to avoid angering a key Democratic constituency.

In 2000, Democrat Al Gore captured 90 percent of the black vote to George W. Bush's 9 percent, one of the lowest percentages for a Republican in decades, according to exit surveys. In the 2004 Democratic race, one of the first tests of the candidates' ability to attract black voters will be the South Carolina primary Feb. 3. More than half the Democrats expected to vote in South Carolina are black.

Dean's surge has hurt Kerry, the Massachusetts senator who cast himself as the early front-runner and must now persuade party leaders he still deserves their support — or that Dean doesn't.

His campaign at a crossroads, Kerry met on Capitol Hill Tuesday with lawmakers who support his campaign, looking for advice on how to respond to Dean's momentum, according to congressional staff.

In recent days, Kerry said Dean has "zero experience" in foreign affairs, criticized his statements on the Middle East conflict, tied him to the National Rifle Association and faulted him for seeking to raise taxes on the middle class.

There was little criticism of Dean in last week's debate, with Lieberman getting in the only significant jab. He said his rival's restrictive trade policies would lead to a "Dean depression."