Democrats say race isn't over despite Gore's support for Dean

Candidates target pair during debate in N.H.

December 10, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DURHAM, N.H. - Hours after Howard Dean secured Al Gore's enthusiastic backing, his presidential rivals heatedly rejected the idea that the Democratic race is all but over.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Gore's running mate in 2000, said in a nationally televised debate last night that "Dean - and now Al Gore, I guess - are on the wrong side" of the central issues in the Democratic campaign.

Lieberman accused Dean of failing to project an image of strength on defense issues and of neglecting the need for fiscal responsibility, moral values, lower taxes and cooperation with business to create jobs.

Invited by moderator Ted Koppel of ABC News to raise their hands if they thought Dean could defeat President Bush in the 2004 general election, none of his eight opponents did.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry drew applause from the audience on the University of New Hampshire campus when he implicitly criticized Gore for being disloyal to the man he chose three years ago as his vice-presidential running mate.

"I think I speak for every candidate up here," Kerry said. "This race is not over until votes have been cast and counted."

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, implying that Gore was trying to strong-arm the party, said that Democrats were not going to have a Republican-style "coronation."

The Rev. Al Sharpton called Gore's action a "dangerous" sign of "bossism" within the party.

In declaring his support, Gore warned the other Democrats not to let themselves get carried away "fighting among ourselves to the point where we seriously damage our ability to win."

Sharpton, one of three long shots in the field who had to fend off questions from the moderator about their viability, said: "I know that Governor Dean and Al Gore love the Internet, [but] www.bossism doesn't work on my computer."

The 90-minute debate was devoted largely to the war in Iraq and to questions about campaign tactics, polls and fund raising.

Koppel, who was quoted recently as saying that he wished that only the six leading contenders were on the stage so the debate would be more manageable, gave the minor candidates as much or more attention than they have received in other forums.

After starting the program with a lengthy discussion of the Gore endorsement, Koppel asked the three long shots - Sharpton, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich - when they might be expected to drop out of the race, though the first votes won't be cast until next month's Iowa caucuses.

That prompted an anti-news media retort from Kucinich, who drew the most enthusiastic audience reaction when he accused the moderator of being fixated on political questions, rather than the issues.

"I want the American people to see where the media takes politics in this country," Kucinich said. "We start talking about endorsements, now we're talking about polls and then we're talking about money. ... When you do that, you don't have to talk about what's important to the American people."

Kucinich pointed out that, alone among the candidates, he had voted against both the Iraq war resolution and the anti-terror Patriot Act.

When Koppel persisted by asking a second Dean-related question to Kerry, who has seen his nomination prospects fade as the former Vermont governor's have risen, Kerry shot back: "If I were an impolite person, I'd tell you where you could take your polls."

Dean stayed largely in the background for much of the evening, apparently doing little or nothing to diminish his popularity in a state where, according to recent polls, he leads the rest of the field by 25 percentage points. Dean, who some Democrats see as too liberal on foreign policy to defeat Bush, was attacked from the left on the war by Sharpton and Kucinich

The former governor said he disagrees with New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on the possible need for more U.S. troops in Iraq, saying that foreign forces should be brought in instead. But Dean said a continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq would be needed for "a few years" until Iraq is strong enough to protect itself.

Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark agreed that "an early exit" by U.S. forces "means either retreat or defeat."

Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, an early supporter of military action against Iraq, faulted Bush for failing to mount a more united world coalition against terrorism.

"If we just find the terrorists and do away with them, but there are waves of young terrorists coming at us and the whole world, we will not ever solve this problem," he said.

The other candidates, increasingly desperate to slow Dean's progress, argue that it is premature to be talking about a likely nominee before the first votes have been cast. But Gore's endorsement reinforced the perception that Dean is positioned to pull away from the field if he can win the initial contests in Iowa and New Hampshire and come out ahead after seven more states vote Feb. 3.

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