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Iraq Issue Divides US Democratic Party Presidential Candidates - 2003-02-22

The possibility of war with Iraq could prove to be a divisive issue for the eight Democrats now running for president in 2004.

It may seem early to be thinking about next year's presidential election, but eight Democrats have already announced intentions to seek the White House in 2004, and up to five more candidates could join the field in the next few weeks.

The two most recent candidates are adding a distinctly anti-war flavor to the race for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich and former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley-Braun both oppose war in Iraq.

Congressman Kucinich is the only one of five members of Congress now running for president who voted against the congressional resolution giving President Bush the authority to use military force to disarm Saddam Hussein.

"This war is wrong. It puts at risk the lives of servicemen and servicewomen," he said. "It puts at risk the lives of innocent Iraqi citizens. Surely, everyone understands that, if we kill thousands of innocent civilians, anger against America will rise, and we will increasingly become less safe here at home."

Four congressional Democrats now running for president supported the resolution on the use of force. They are Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Senators Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina.

Carol Moseley-Braun, the only African-American woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate, says she will challenge those Democrats who support the president.

"The Constitution of the United States calls on Congress to make declarations of war. And, frankly, I think the people who voted for that [congressional] resolution were wrong to do so," she said. "You can't just abdicate as profound a responsibility as war and peace to the executive."

Two other Democratic contenders, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and New York civil rights activist Al Sharpton, also oppose war in Iraq. That means the eight-person Democratic field is evenly split on the issue.

Washington-based political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says Congressman Kucinich's decision to enter the presidential campaign means that Iraq will be, at least in the short term, a prominent issue in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"Dennis Kucinich has no chance of winning the Democratic nomination," he said. "But I don't think that is why he is running. He is running to bring the issue to the forefront, to try to galvanize public opposition against the war and, in fact I think, to nudge other Democratic politicians to increase their criticism of President Bush."

Despite the addition of anti-war candidates, those Democrats who supported the congressional resolution on the use of force are standing by their decision.

"I believe Saddam is a serious threat," said Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. "I believe he must be disarmed. It is a belief that is a principled belief for me, and, I think, we should be willing to use military action, if necessary."

But even those Democratic candidates who support the president's stand on Iraq have criticized the administration for alienating some U.S. allies over the use of force.

Public opinion polls indicate about 60 percent of Americans support the president on Iraq. But those same surveys suggest that nearly 50 percent of Democratic voters oppose war.

Analyst Stuart Rothenberg says that puts some of the Democrats running for president in a difficult position.

"They want to seem loyal and patriotic and tough on Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida," he said. "And at the same time, they know that the grass roots Democrats are not enthusiastic about a war, and are worried about the president going too far too fast. And when you want to have it both ways, often, you are kind of frozen in an ambiguous position, where you can't be supportive entirely, but you can't attack entirely, and that is where most of the Democrats [running for president] are."

As crowded as the eight-person Democratic field is at the moment, it could get bigger. At least five other Democrats are considering a run for the White House next year, and some of them could join the field within the next few weeks.