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In latest debate, Kerry attacks Dean, sharpens his Iraq stance
Meanwhile, Wesley Clark continues to fade
BY DAVID S. BERNSTEIN

MONDAY, OCTOBER 27, 2003 -- An important three-way divide has opened up among the Democratic candidates for President concerning the war in Iraq, as evidenced at their latest debate, held Sunday evening at the Fox Theater in Detroit. On one end, supporting the war from the beginning, is Senator Joe Lieberman, and to a lesser extent Congressman Richard Gephardt. On the far end, several candidates have opposed the war from the start, most notably former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Then there are Senators John Kerry and John Edwards, who voted to authorize the war, but are now so critical that they voted against the $87 billion war funding bill. General Wesley Clark claims to have opposed the war all along, but his statements seem to place him in the Kerry-Edwards camp.

Although Kerry and Edwards have come under attack for this supposed inconsistency, their changing view is probably closest to the experience of most Americans. That is, they really believed, based on the intelligence they were given at the time, that Iraq posed a threat worth leading a protracted (preferably international) effort against. As they have absorbed the faultiness of the intelligence, the isolation of the American effort, and the immense cost of the occupation in money and ongoing troop deployment, they have decided that the scope and direction of the effort must change.

The members of this camp defended their stances Sunday by focusing on Bushís faulty behavior before, during, and after "major operations." "This administration determined to do a bait-and-switch on the American public," General Wesley Clark charged, accusing Bush of deliberately using the September 11 attacks to justify an unrelated war. "This President has done it wrong every step of the way," Kerry said. "This President has no plan of any kind that I can see," Edwards said.

Kerry in particular hammered home the way he expected things to unfold a year ago, and how far afield things have gone since. As he and Edwards hone this message, they can use it to launch into criticism of Bush for his refusal, or inability, to adjust his thinking -- the video clip of Bush claiming that the Kay report validates his pre-war comments may get as much election-year play as his fatherís "Read my lips, no new taxes" once did.

Which makes it tough for Lieberman to explain why he hasnít changed his war support. Or, it would make it tough if anyone still cared enough about his candidacy to challenge him. By pulling out of Iowa and slumping in polls, Lieberman has become the candidate nobody bothers to zing.

And what of Dean? He claims the upper hand for having gotten to the right answer first, but, as Kerry charged on Sunday, "We never heard Governor Dean ever say how he would deal with Iraq." That is, if Dean was President, would we still be running no-fly-zone missions out of a Saudi air base, with Saddam Hussein still in Baghdad and intelligence still telling us of imminent danger? Dean did not answer that charge, and could only vaguely boast that "I was, for some reason . . . able to tell the president was not being candid to the American people" about the Iraqi threat.

Dean took other hits as well, most effectively from Kerry. After Dean insisted that Social Security and Medicare were "off the table" in his plan to balance the budget, Kerry noted that Dean has previously said that entitlements are on the table. If not Social Security and Medicare, which entitlements would he consider cutting, Kerry asked -- veteransí pensions? Food stamps?

And it was Kerry again who faulted Dean for wanting to undo all of the Bush tax cuts, and for dismissing the idea that those cuts saved the middle class anything in the first place. The child care tax credit and the lowering of the bottom marginal tax bracket, Kerry pointed out, saved middle-class families a great deal of money, and middle-class families would absolutely be hurt if they are repealed. Dean never contradicted the argument, responding instead that "If youíre going to defend the presidentís tax cuts and youíre going to defend the presidentís war, I frankly donít think we can beat George Bush by being Bush lite."

Although Kerry scored the best hits on Dean, he did little to define himself on domestic issues. And in perhaps the oddest decision of the debate, he used his closing remarks to talk about the importance of gun safety laws and of standing up to the National Rifle Association on the assault weapons ban, which must be something like 48th on the list of top voter concerns in this election.

Clark continued to build his anti-Bush rhetoric -- "Iím in this because this countryís in one heck of a mess" -- that seems increasingly at odds with comments he made earlier in Bushís tenure. And when asked whether heís in over his head in his first attempt at running for office, he told an odd story about losing an election for home-room student council representative.

Gephardt and Edwards kept pounding their messages with as much passion as they can muster, while letting Kerry do most of the Dean assaulting.

The debate, sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, drew a partisan crowd that loved Ambassador Carole Moseley-Braun and positively swooned for Reverend Al Sharpton. They also cheered for WJBK Fox-2 news anchor Huel Perkins, an African-American panelist who occasionally showed more emotion in asking his questions than the candidates showed answering them. Perkins even cut in to take Congressman Dennis Kucinich to task for overstating the number of recent homicides in Detroit.


Issue Date: October 27, 2003
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