Iraq war dominates Democratic debate

Candidates for president alternate between attacks on Bush and one another

October 27, 2003|By Mark Z. Barabak | Mark Z. Barabak,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DETROIT - The Democratic presidential hopefuls reprised their debate last night over the war in Iraq, bickering over questions of trustworthiness and how best to show the nation's commitment to its combat troops.

Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio suggested that their recent vote in Congress against an $87 billion reconstruction package was the best way to serve U.S. troops, by forcing a reckoning from the Bush administration on how to end the occupation of Iraq safely.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark echoed the sentiment. Calling the administration's funding request "a blank check," Clark said that President Bush "still hasn't come forward with a strategy for how we're going to succeed on the ground in Iraq."

But Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, a firm supporter of the invasion of Iraq, joined Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri in defending the pair's votes in favor of the $87 billion package. "If everyone had voted the way John Kerry did, the money would not have been there to support our troops" during the Vietnam War, Lieberman said. Kerry is a decorated veteran of that unpopular war.

The debate, held at the plush Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit, was sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus and Fox News Channel, which broadcast the event nationwide. The session was the fifth nationally televised candidate forum since early last month.

And with a few exceptions - including brief discussion of some of the ills afflicting urban America and some talk about the Middle East - it followed a familiar pattern.

More than a third of the 90-minute debate was devoted to the war in Iraq, a matter the candidates have debated at length on virtually every occasion they have come together.

Once more, Lieberman was a leading antagonist. He said he respected Dean, Kucinich, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and the Rev. Al Sharpton, even though he disagreed with their stands against the war. He accused the other candidates of political expediency by trying to have it both ways - first supporting the war when it came to a vote last year in Congress, then switching positions as the fighting seemed to bog down.

"We're trying to replace a president who doesn't level with the American people," Lieberman said. "And we're not going to do it unless we also level." But Kerry and Edwards said they stood by their congressional vote to rid Iraq of its former president, Saddam Hussein. Their quarrel, they said, was with Bush's execution of the war and his reliance on a largely go-it-alone strategy.

For his part, Clark insisted, "I've been against this war from the beginning." Even though he has made contradictory statements about how he would have voted in Congress, Clark said: "It was an unnecessary war. There was no imminent threat."

Some of the most intensive sparring of the evening was between Dean and Kerry, who are battling for New Hampshire, the first true primary state, seen as a must-win for both men.

Asked about his lack of military and foreign policy experience, Dean replied that he has as much experience as Bush had when he was elected president - and at least as much as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton when they were elected. All four men served as governors before attaining the White House. Moreover, Dean said, he planned to surround himself with a strong set of advisers.

But Kerry suggested Dean might want to think twice about comparing himself with Bush, given the counsel the president has received and the difficulties in Iraq. "We're electing a president of the United States," Kerry said, "not a staff."

At another point, Dean reiterated his call to repeal Bush's tax cuts in their entirety, scoffing at those who say such an action would amount to an increase in taxes on the middle class. "What middle-class tax cuts?" asked Dean, who said state and local tax increases have more than offset any benefits enjoyed by all but the most affluent Americans.

But Kerry, who favors only partial repeal of Bush's tax cuts, insisted that many middle-income Americans have enjoyed savings as a result of the increased child-care deduction and other provisions that were a part of the president's package. "Those aren't Bush Republican cuts," Kerry said. "Those are the Democratic cuts we worked hard to put in place to protect the middle class."

The forum was set in the hard-pressed downtown of a city trying to shake an image of urban decay. That prompted a rare discussion of some of the pathologies facing inner-city America.

Edwards said he would favor a program boosting pay and granting scholarships to students who agreed to teach in "less-advantaged areas." Lieberman said he would work to end the disparity in drug sentencing that has filled the nation's jails with nonviolent offenders and a disproportionate number of blacks. Kerry offered a firm endorsement of gun control, saying Democrats "must not retreat in order to court votes."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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