Democratic hopefuls spar over Iraq

Dean reaps big applause with his anti-war stance

hawks get chilly reception

The Nation

February 22, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Democrats' most hawkish presidential contenders, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, met with cold silence from party leaders yesterday as they defended their hard-line positions on war with Iraq.

Lieberman, the 2000 vice presidential nominee, unintentionally drew a smattering of applause from the Democratic National Committee when he acknowledged that "some in our party and our nation and many around the world are against the use of force in Iraq."

But the Connecticut senator argued that "Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction must be destroyed sooner rather than later. Because sooner or later, if we do not, they will be used against us."

Gephardt of Missouri was heckled after he said he was "proud that I wrote the resolution" in Congress authorizing President Bush to use military force against Iraq.

"Shame!" shouted a man in the audience. Gephardt, who maintained that the congressional resolution helped Bush "finally make his case to the United Nations," did not react to the interruption.

A quartet of presidential candidates went before the DNC in the first of a two-day series of campaign appearances. The reaction to dovish remarks by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun left little doubt that the party's left-leaning institutional leadership, like many Democratic voters, opposes a possible war with Iraq.

Dean easily drew the most enthusiastic reception of the day. To applause, he began by taking a veiled shot at Gephardt and Lieberman.

"What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq," said Dean, whose anti-war rhetoric is gaining him support in early primary and caucus states.

The DNC members, drawn from all 50 states and from interest groups such as organized labor, leaped to their feet repeatedly during his 20-minute speech.

A sustained cheer greeted the line: "I'm Howard Dean, and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." Many liberals blame the party's losses in last fall's election on candidates who ran away from their liberal roots.

`Stole the show'

Dean also brought the audience out of its chairs when he argued that issues such as universal health care and improved education could broaden the party's appeal. Red-faced, he shouted that Democrats need to court Southern whites who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals, "because their kids don't have health insurance, either, and their kids need better schools, too."

Though Dean clearly "stole the show," in the view of Maynard Jackson, a former Atlanta mayor, Gephardt was "a tight second." Jackson, who has yet to endorse a candidate, said Gephardt "connected extremely well."

The former House Democratic leader is reintroducing himself as he begins his second presidential try, 15 years after the first. Gephardt recalled how his parents, a milk-truck driver and a secretary, neither of whom finished high school, pinched pennies to send him to college.

"Don't you think it's time we had a president," he said, "who understood the life experience of ordinary Americans?"

The implied contrast was with Bush, but it could also apply to several of Gephardt's Democratic rivals, including Sen. John Kerry and Dean, who are from wealthy families.

At the moment, unseating Bush is the party's strongest unifying theme. But that won't be easy, Gephardt warned.

"This is a guy who came in second in the election and still figured out how to get in the Oval Office," he said. "Don't underestimate him."

`Mad rush'

Also appearing before the DNC, which met behind piles of leftover snow at a Capitol Hill hotel, was Moseley-Braun, the only black woman to serve in the Senate.

Moseley-Braun, who lost her seat in 1998 after one term, assailed Bush's "mad rush to pre-emptive, unilateral military action," which, she said, had "frittered away" world support the United States gained after the 2001 terrorist attack.

"Duct tape is no substitute for diplomacy," she said.

Scheduled to address the DNC today are Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York. Kerry was invited but is not expected to appear.

Kerry, recuperating from prostate cancer surgery, was examined yesterday by his surgeon, Dr. Patrick C. Walsh of Baltimore. There was no sign of post-operative problems, according to the Massachusetts senator's campaign.

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