COLUMBIA, S.C. - Nine Democratic presidential candidates waged a surprisingly combative debate last night, the first of the 2004 campaign, as they sought to shift the country's attention away from war in Iraq and toward problems closer to home.
The Democratic contenders-sometimes portrayed as having few substantive differences - managed to find plenty to disagree about on issues from taxes and health care to national security during the 90-minute forum, held on the University of South Carolina campus.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the party's last vice presidential nominee, warned Democrats that President Bush will be re-elected next year unless they project an image of strength on matters of national defense and homeland security.
"No Democrat will be elected president in 2004 who is not strong on defense, and this war [in Iraq] was a test of that," said Lieberman, pointing out that he was the only candidate who supported both the 1991 Persian Gulf war and the war in Iraq.
Three other candidates-Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and Sens. John Edwards and John Kerry - supported Bush's request to use military force against Iraq. But former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose anti-war views have propelled his candidacy in recent months, says he still believes the war against Saddam Hussein was wrong and that Bush's policy of pre-emptive military action would cause serious problems for the United States in the future.
The initiative often described as the first big idea of the 2004 contest - Gephardt's proposal for a $241 billion-a-year plan to cover almost all Americans with health insurance - drew sharp criticism.
Edwards said Gephardt's plan, which would give hefty tax credits to businesses and require them to give health insurance to all their employees, amounted to a huge tax increase on the middle class and would give corporations even more power. "That sounds like Reaganomics to me," Edwards said.
Lieberman said the Gephardt plan would do nothing to restrain the rising cost of health care and would prove as costly to the Medicare and Social Security trust funds as Bush's tax cut. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich said the private sector needs to be removed entirely from health care and proposed a payroll tax on business to finance a government-run system of universal health care.
Gephardt, who would repeal the Bush tax cut to pay for his health plan, rejected that criticism and said his plan would stimulate the economy. In a veiled shot at Lieberman, the most conservative candidate in the race, the Missouri congressman said Democrats won't win the election if they nominate a "Bush Lite" candidate.
The debate did not begin until 9 p.m., so that Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who observes the Sabbath, could participate. ABC television sponsored the event and broadcast it, on a tape-delayed basis, over some of its affiliates late last night.
The moderator, George Stephanopoulos, a former Gephardt aide, did not spare his former boss during a section of the program in which he asked the eight men and one woman to respond to criticism about their candidacies.
What about those who say that you are the Democratic Bob Dole?, he asked Gephardt, referring to the longtime Republican senator who failed to prevent Bill Clinton from winning re-election in 1996. "If you're looking for the fresh face and the new face, I'm probably not your candidate," conceded Gephardt, who then went on to promote his experience on both domestic and foreign issues.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, was asked about charges that his candidacy could prove racially polarizing, defended himself by comparing himself to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who ran for the 1984 Democratic nomination. Two years later, Democrats took back the Senate, added Sharpton, maintaining that it was black voters registered by Jackson who made the difference.
Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, the other African-American candidate in the race, denied the claim that she was running at the behest of Democrats who want to siphon votes from Sharpton. She also provided one of the only light moments of the evening, when she recalled the political joke "that it was the black vote that decided the 2000 [presidential] election: Clarence Thomas."
Lieberman, asked to respond by the moderator to those who say he is "too nice" to be president, shot back: "I'd like to come over there and strangle you, George" He added, with a smile, that "you don't have to be a screamer to be tough."
Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, the newest candidate to join the race, emphasized his ability to be elected, pointing out that the last three Democrats to win the presidency were all Southerners. He described himself as a member of "the electable wing of the Democratic Party."
The forum is thought to be the earliest network debate in a presidential campaign.
It ended two days of intensive politicking that underscored how important this state is likely to be in next year's presidential contest.