Too much, too soon?

October 29, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - For the fifth time in the last two months, the Democratic presidential candidates squared off again the other night, this time in Detroit, to debate why President Bush should be sent back to Texas in 2004 and which of them should do the sending.

But as in the previous encounters, most of the candidates saved their best shots for each other. Former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont was the favorite target by virtue of his rivals' concern that he could be running away with the party's nomination even before the first convention delegates are chosen for the Democratic convention in Boston next summer.

Mr. Dean is running neck-and-neck with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri for the kickoff Iowa precinct caucuses on Jan. 19, and he has a lead of about 2-1 in some polls over Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts for the New Hampshire primary eight days later.

Three others - Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark - are busy playing the low-expectations game, hoping to exceed the bar set for them by the polls and news media prognosticators.

Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Clark have lightened the burden for themselves by opting out of the Iowa contest to focus on New Hampshire and some of the seven states voting only a week after the Granite State primary. But Mr. Edwards is campaigning hard in both places, hoping to surprise with a pair of third-place finishes heading into his own neighboring state of South Carolina on Feb. 3.

As in previous debates, Mr. Dean gave as good as he got in Detroit. He used his early and categorical opposition to Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq to remind listeners that four of his rivals - Mr. Lieberman, Mr. Kerry, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Gephardt - voted for what he likes to call a blank check to Mr. Bush to start his war.

Mr. Lieberman, chided as being "Bush Lite" for strenuously supporting the invasion and backing the president's request for $87 billion to pay for the aftermath, attacked Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards for opposing the huge money bill and Mr. Clark for saying he would have done the same were he in Congress.

The general, who entered the race saying he "probably" would have voted for the war resolution had he been there at the time but quickly changed his tune, said he wouldn't give Mr. Bush a dime until he came forward with "a winning strategy" in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the three long-shot candidates - Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who outdoes Mr. Dean in his vehement opposition to the war, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton, both also against the invasion - again struggled to be heard and taken seriously.

Although most candidates are willing to die for "face time" on television, it's debatable whether these nine worthies are helping themselves by such heavy exposure to the electorate (assuming much of it is watching yet). When Mr. Clark did some handshaking in New Hampshire last week, for example, he heard complaints about the intramural sniping among the Democrats.

The unprecedentedly early epidemic of candidate debates, while providing ample opportunities for the participants to define their differences, risks voter weariness. The large field also works against real and sustained debating among the leading candidates, although the long-shots often provide spice and humor, a role filled in this cycle by the acid-tongued Mr. Sharpton.

More important, these almost weekly Democratic confrontations can create the sense of a divided and bickering party, belying the fact that there is obvious unity among the rivals in the desire to beat Mr. Bush in 2004.

But clearly this is not the time for them to emphasize their areas of agreement. That can come later, after one Democrat has survived to take on a Bush juggernaut that will be the best-financed campaign in the nation's political history, ready to roll well before the president's renomination.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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