War is focus of Democratic forum

Presidential hopefuls attack Bush leadership, Dean on actions in Vt.

November 25, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Democratic presidential contenders leveled fresh criticism against President Bush yesterday, charging that America is less secure now than it was on Sept. 11 and accusing him of politicizing the fight against terrorism.

The candidates also ganged up on former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, still the man to beat in the Democratic contest.

During a televised forum in Iowa, where the first presidential votes will be cast in less than two months, the Democrats appeared eager to challenge what is expected to be a central focus of Bush's re-election campaign: his leadership since the 2001 terrorist strikes.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, in his surest debate performance since entering the race in September, said that Bush had pulled off "the greatest bait-and-switch" in American history by "recklessly" and needlessly invading Iraq instead of capturing Osama bin Laden.

"We're not safer with half our army and $150 billion and Americans dying every day in Iraq," said Clark, a former commander of allied forces in Europe. "That is not the centerpiece of the war on terror."

Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun said the administration has "left our domestic security in shambles" and accused Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney of "frightening the American people for the last two years, instead of telling them the truth."

Anti-war sentiment runs high among Democratic activists in Iowa, and the audience of 900 voters in Des Moines repeatedly applauded the most liberal candidates in the race: Braun, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

The most conservative, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, is skipping Iowa and did not participate in the debate.

Bush and the Republicans are stepping up their response to the Democratic attacks. Minutes before the debate began, Bush, dressed in a military jacket, addressed a cheering crowd of soldiers and their families at an Army base in Colorado. Both events were carried live by MSNBC.

Also in Iowa, the Republican National Committee's first TV ad on behalf of Bush's re-election casts him as a battler against terrorism and accuses his foes of "attacking the president for attacking the terrorists."

Calling the ad "an outrage," Clark said he wasn't attacking Bush "because he's attacking terrorists."

"I'm attacking him because he isn't attacking terrorists," Clark said, "and that's the problem with this administration."

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who participated via a video hookup from Washington, said U.S. policy in Iraq would continue to fail until the administration takes "the American face off" the occupation and puts the United Nations in charge of the Iraqi civilian authority and expands the security force to include other NATO countries.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, also beamed in via satellite, said Bush had "abused" his authority to send U.S. forces into battle. Kerry contrasted himself with Dean by touting his foreign policy experience, which he termed "vital" to defeating Bush.

Dean, whose early opposition to the war in Iraq triggered his rise to the top of the Democratic presidential field, was attacked by Kerry and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt for wanting to curb the growth of Medicare spending in the 1990s.

In response to a question from the moderator, Tom Brokaw of NBC News, Dean defended his decision to avoid military service during the Vietnam era. In 1970, while a student at Yale, he used X-rays and a letter from his doctor to obtain a draft deferment for a back condition that was judged to render him medically unfit to serve.

Brokaw noted that soon afterward, Dean spent nearly a year as a ski bum in Aspen, Colo., skiing "the moguls. I know how tough they are on your back."

Dean, who followed a route taken by some other affluent young Americans in obtaining the medical deferment, was unapologetic. He said he had "fulfilled my obligation" to the government. "I failed the physical. If that makes this an issue, then so be it."

The former governor then turned on his rivals, remarking that many had also not served in Vietnam, including Gephardt, the early favorite to win the Iowa caucuses. Dean did not mention that Gephardt served in the Air National Guard from 1965 to 1971.

Dean also charged that Kerry's foreign policy experience hadn't prevented him from giving Bush "a blank check to invade Iraq." He called the votes by Kerry, Edwards and Gephardt in favor of the war resolution part of "an abdication and a failure on the part of Congress."

But Clark said it would be "a great mistake" if Democrats make the Iraq war resolution, rather than Bush's Iraq policy, "a litmus test" in selecting a nominee.

It's unclear whether most Democratic activists agree, at least in Iowa, where the field will start to be winnowed on the night of the Jan. 19 caucuses.

Midway through yesterday's two-hour debate, when Dean commented that Kucinich, alone among the Democratic candidates, "had the courage to vote against" the Iraq resolution, the audience burst into applause.

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