Candidates bash Bush, each other

November 21, 2003|By Jules Witcover

DES MOINES, Iowa - The Democratic presidential candidates came away from Iowa after their big Jefferson-Jackson dinner last weekend fired up to beat President Bush, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York the prime stoker of the coals.

As the celebrity mistress of ceremonies, the former first lady was an oratorical match for any of the six White House hopefuls who spoke. She introduced each and challenged the crowd of faithful to spend the next 50 weeks organizing to remove Mr. Bush from the Oval Office and put one of the six in his place.

In doing so, she made clear again that she has no intention of being a candidate herself, a pipe dream of some of her free-lance supporters out of touch with political reality. But she did show, in a demonstration of unscripted oratory, that some of her husband's magic with words has rubbed off on her.

After an initial putdown of the six worthy of Richard Nixon, in which she reminded the audience that "pundits and polls say the field is weak," she recovered by adding, "Remember, pundits and polls don't pick presidents, people pick presidents." She thereupon proclaimed the candidates, in a bit of a stretch, as "the best-qualified" in years.

In a thinly veiled compliment to her spouse, she said Mr. Bush has "squandered" the budget surpluses of the Clinton years and, with his unilateralist approach to foreign policy, "squandered the good will this country had" around the world.

Her remarks set the stage for a round of Bush-bashing by the Democratic candidates, which is standard procedure for a major party event of this sort. Even Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who has cautioned his party not to count on its anger toward Mr. Bush to defeat him, charged that the Republican president has "led us from the edge of greatness to the edge of a cliff, and it's time for us to lead George Bush out of town."

Front-running former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the angriest of the major Democratic contenders, revved up the faithful by thundering that "you have the power" to oust the incumbent, and in the process also twitted some of his rivals for the nomination.

Alluding to Mr. Bush's war resolution supported by four of them in Congress, Dr. Dean said Mr. Bush was able to invade Iraq "because we didn't fight hard enough to stop him." The obvious principal target of that remark was Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, leading Dr. Dean in the polls here for the Jan. 19 Iowa precinct caucuses.

Amid all the Bush-bashing and party solidarity of the dinner, the Dean campaign took the occasion to put out a pamphlet showing Mr. Gephardt standing "shoulder-to-shoulder with President Bush to announce the authoring of the Iraq war resolution." The pamphlet went on: "Instead of questioning the abandonment of long-standing American foreign policy based on diplomacy and cooperation between nations, Representative Gephardt approved a Bush/Cheney policy where, for the first time in America's history, we commit to war before exhausting our efforts to commit to peace."

Mr. Gephardt responded the next day that Dr. Dean had pledged not to "politicize" the war, and his Iowa campaign manager, John Lapp, decried Dr. Dean's resort to negative advertising. The Dean campaign countered that Mr. Gephardt, in earlier speeches, had gone negative by saying the former governor shared former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich's criticism of Medicare. Both sides said their own criticisms were simply comparing records and were not "negative."

Iowa Democratic Chairman Gordon Fischer says: "It's true that when somebody goes negative [in Iowa] it can really cut badly the other way. Iowans are friendly people who don't like that." They prefer positive campaigning, he says, noting that both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan did well by "always saying the sun's not setting, it's always rising."

With the Iowa caucuses two months away, however, accentuating the positive may fall by the wayside as the contenders, and particularly Dr. Dean and Mr. Gephardt, not only compete in bashing Mr. Bush but also probe for the political vulnerabilities of each other.

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

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