In Calif., Democrats hit Bush on Iraq

War foes warm to Dean

Kerry blames president for international isolation

March 16, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - With a new Persian Gulf war perhaps only days away, Democratic activists in the nation's most populous state cheered attacks on President Bush's Iraq policy yesterday by party leaders and presidential candidates.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean drew the most vigorous response from the 2,500 Democrats attending the party's California convention when he tore into Bush - and two of his presidential rivals - over the war issue.

Dean, whose anti-war rhetoric is propelling his long-shot candidacy, accused Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards of trying to have it both ways on Iraq.

"I don't think we can win the White House if we vote for the president's unilateral attack on Iraq in Washington and then come to California and say we're against the war," Dean told the decidedly anti-war crowd, which interrupted his fiery speech with chants of "We want Dean."

But Edwards, who spoke earlier in the day, did not say he opposed the war. The North Carolina senator was booed when he said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein should be disarmed by "military force if necessary. We cannot allow him to have nuclear weapons." At one point, Edwards was forced to pause when choruses of "No war" rose from the crowd in the Sacramento Convention Center.

Kerry, considered by some the early front-runner in the Democratic contest, largely skirted the war issue during his two-day speaking and fund-raising trip to northern California.

He was heckled when he spoke Friday night at a reception for hundreds of Democratic delegates. "What about the war, John?" shouted a man in the crowd.

Making only a brief reference to Iraq, Kerry said the United States should go to war only as a "last resort." He won loud applause, however, when he criticized the Bush administration for allowing the United States to become increasingly isolated internationally.

The United States, Kerry said, "needs to start to make some friends on this planet, and we need to get about the business of doing it now."

The Massachusetts senator, a decorated Navy veteran who rose to national prominence as an anti-war leader during the Vietnam era, has crafted a highly nuanced position on Iraq. After opposing the 1991 gulf war resolution, he voted last fall to authorize Bush to use military force against Hussein. Since then, he has become increasingly critical of Bush's handling of the issue.

Kerry has said repeatedly that he does not regret his vote, but he won't say whether or when force should be used. In recent days, he has condemned Bush for not doing more to prevent war and has criticized the administration's diplomacy as "bizarre, arrogant [and] ineffective."

"When you go to war, you want Americans to believe you're there not as a matter of choice but as a matter of compulsion. I don't believe that Americans have that feeling yet," Kerry told reporters here.

He criticized Bush for not "taking the time and showing the patience to be able to avoid war." But when asked about his own comment, made in January, that Hussein be given only 30 more days to disarm, Kerry said he had assumed that the anti-Iraq coalition would be more united and that the diplomatic effort at the United Nations would be more effective.

One of the reasons that international support failed to materialize, he said, "is that the administration embarked on such a significant buildup before the fact." Kerry said Bush had also offered shifting arguments for why war is necessary, which have "disturbed a lot of countries and complicated our own diplomacy very significantly."

Democratic strategists say many of the presidential hopefuls face a delicate balancing act. They can't ignore the pervasive anti-war sentiment in the party. But the more they speak out against Bush's policy, the more they risk being seen as weak on national defense, a perception that severely hurt the party in the recent past.

"That's why it's such a tricky issue," said Garry South, a top political adviser to Democratic Gov. Gray Davis of California. "Our party has suffered since the early 1970s from the image that we are not sufficiently concerned about national defense. And obviously, after September 11th, that is not a place where you want the party to be."

Four of the 2004 contenders voted in favor of the war resolution - Kerry, Edwards, Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. "How that vote will look retrospectively," South added, "no one really knows."

Privately, aides to several of the Democratic candidates said they expect the war to fade as a campaign issue once the fighting ends, assuming that everything goes well militarily. At that point, they say, domestic issues - including the economy, taxes and health care - will probably become the focus of the nomination fight and next year's general election.

In all, six of the nine Democratic contenders agreed to appear at the three-day California convention. Gephardt and Lieberman skipped the event. Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who voted against the Iraq war resolution, is recuperating from heart surgery and has not begun campaigning.

The other candidates on the program - the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, all strongly oppose a war with Iraq.

Reflecting the liberalism of this state's Democrats, many of the delegates sported bright yellow "No war" stickers on their lapels.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, seemed to speak for most of her fellow Californians in the hall, who rose to their feet when she declared: "I do not believe that going to war now is the best way to disarm Iraq."

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