Democrats line up to attack Bush

Edwards comes on strong at party gathering of White House hopefuls

February 23, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Two days of Bush-bashing by Democrats eager to take on the president in 2004 concluded yesterday with Sen. John Edwards branding Bush's presidency "a failure for the great middle class of America and everyone struggling to enter it."

The North Carolina senator was the last of seven presidential candidates to audition before the Democratic National Committee at its winter meeting here. The 441 DNC members are automatic delegates to next year's presidential nomination convention, and the candidate showcase was considered an important early test in the Democratic contest.

Edwards, along with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who spoke the previous day, were the contenders who made the strongest impression on the party leaders, according to interviews with DNC members and Democratic strategists.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, recuperating from prostate cancer surgery, did not appear. That prevented the DNC from taking the measure of the entire field, which has no clear front-runner at this stage.

In addition, several other Democrats have said they might run. They include Sens. Bob Graham of Florida, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, former Sen. Gary Hart from Colorado and retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

Amid fears over war in Iraq and terrorism and a sluggish economy at home, polls show most Americans feel that the country has gotten onto the wrong track. The public approves of the way Bush is performing as president, but they give him negative marks for his handling of the economy - encouraging Democrats to believe that, like his father, he could turn out to be a one-term president.

"Are you better off than you were two years ago?" asked Edwards, reviving a question that has become a standard in presidential campaigns since candidate Ronald Reagan used it to devastating effect against President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

At least partly because Edwards is the only Southerner running on the Democratic side, he is often described by Republicans as the candidate the White House fears most. The last time a Democrat from outside the South became president was in 1960, when John F. Kennedy won.

"In two short years, George W. Bush has taught us what that `W' stands for: Wrong. Wrong for our children, wrong for our parents, wrong for our values, and wrong, wrong, wrong for America," said Edwards.

He joined other Democratic candidates in calling for repeal of Bush's tax cuts for wealthy Americans, more federal aid to states and cities for homeland security and public education, and a prescription drug benefit for seniors.

The freshman senator also addressed one of his perceived weaknesses: his career as a trial lawyer, already the target of White House attacks. Some Democrats think Edwards could be vulnerable against Bush, whose crusade against trial lawyers and excessive jury awards dates from his first campaign for Texas governor in 1994.

Edwards, who financed his successful political debut, a 1998 Senate race, with some of the millions he earned as a plaintiff's attorney, delivered a vigorous defense of his career and lawsuits he had won.

"Mr. President, if you want to talk about the insiders you've fought for vs. the kids and families that I've fought for, here's my message to you: `Mr. President, bring it on!'" Edwards shouted, to applause. He went on tell of his successful lawsuit against an insurance company that had refused to pay for physical therapy for a young boy suffering from cerebral palsy.

Edwards was preceded at the microphone by the most liberal candidates in the field, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York.

Kucinich spoke of his role in opposing the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use military force against Iraq. The Cleveland congressman warned that a war with Iraq would "make America not more safe, but less safe. It will bring more, not less, terror to our shores. [It] will put America's sons and daughters at risk for no good reason."

Sharpton sought to reassure party leaders who fear that his candidacy could divide Democrats along racial lines and revive old, politically damaging images of a party out of step with the country.

Acknowledging his reputation as "the nightmare of the Democrats," Sharpton portrayed his campaign as a "wakeup call" aimed at prodding the party, and the nation, to give seniors a prescription drug benefit, preserve racial preferences for minorities and prevent a war in Iraq.

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