Clark, Dean come under fire in debate

Other Democrats assail two poll leaders over loyalty to party

October 10, 2003|By Mark Z. Barabak | Mark Z. Barabak,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PHOENIX - Wesley Clark and Howard Dean, the two candidates leading most Democratic preference polls, came under sharp attack last night from presidential rivals who challenged their loyalty to the party and its principles.

The war in Iraq - a perpetual divide in the Democratic contest - also dominated much of the discussion, as nine White House hopefuls shared a stage for 90 minutes of vigorous jousting that saw them needle each other nearly as much as they needled President Bush.

Clark, the retired Army general, came under the sharpest fire since he entered the race less then a month ago, with Dean launching the first attack. Dean, a vigorous opponent of the war, noted that during Clark's first days as a candidate, he created confusion about how he would have voted on the resolution Congress passed last year authorizing use of force against Iraq.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, a firm supporter of the war, chimed in, suggesting that Americans had lost faith in Bush for his failing to "level with them." He said Democrats "need a candidate who passes the test of reaching a conclusion and sticking with it."

But Clark maintained that he has been consistent all along. "I always supported taking the problem of [former Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein to the U.N.," Clark said. "I would never have voted for a war."

The exchange reflected the impact Clark has had on the Democratic contest since he launched his campaign. Indeed, the debate at a fine arts center in downtown Phoenix - the third candidates forum in five weeks - comes at a time when the race seems in many ways more unsettled than ever.

Dean lost his distinction as the clear-cut front-runner shortly after Clark entered the contest last month. Within days, Clark had surged to the fore in several national opinion polls.

Clark's candidacy, though, has suffered some reversals. This week, his campaign manager quit. And along with the charges that he has flip-flopped on the Iraq war, Clark has faced doubts about his loyalty to the Democratic Party.

In mid-2001, Clark had kind words for President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others in the administration. He also revealed that he voted for Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard M. Nixon, and was not even registered as a Democrat when he launched his presidential bid.

Defending his comments on the Bush team, Clark said last night that he had hoped the president would have a successful term in office and prove to be the "compassionate conservative" that he termed himself during the 2000 campaign.

Instead, said Clark, "We have a guy who has deepened the deficit and taken us into a reckless war. He's been a radical, not a compassionate conservative."

Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts said he and other Democrats had opposed Bush's policies from the start.

As has been the case in the past debates, Dean came under repeated attack, especially for comments he made in the mid-1990s when, as governor of Vermont, he backed efforts to slow spending for Medicare.

"He was in agreement with the Republican stand" that was being pushed by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

Gephardt was a Democratic leader in the House at the time, and during the last month he has continually raised the Medicare issue against Dean.

Last night, Dean noted that when his staunch opposition to the war with Iraq vaulted him to the top tier in the Democratic race, his rivals - suggesting he was too liberal to beat Bush - compared him with the party's 1972 presidential nominee, former Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.

"Now they're saying I'm Newt Gingrich and can't win," Dean said, adding that, like Gephardt, he was committed to protecting Social Security and Medicare.

The debate at one point veered into a discussion of class distinctions, when Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina was asked by panelist Jeff Greenfield of CNN why his upbringing under humble circumstances should matter to voters. Both Kerry and Dean hail from well-off families, and Edwards has made his background a central part of his campaign narrative.

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