Democrats seeking their party's 2004 presidential nomination attacked President Bush for his actions in Iraq and his domestic and trade policies during their first debate, which was held in the southwestern state of New Mexico Thursday.
Iraq was the first issue addressed in the debate and the eight Democratic candidates roundly criticized President Bush for what they characterized as errors in judgment and strategy. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry said the president had led U.S. troops into what he called a "shooting gallery." Former House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt described the president on this issue as "a miserable failure."
The candidates supported the president's decision to seek a greater role for the United Nations in postwar Iraq, but former Vermont Governor Howard Dean said the president should have sought U.N. involvement from the beginning. Mr. Dean, who polls indicate is the current front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, said the president would now have to seek help from "the very people he humiliated."
Mr. Dean said the United States should look far and wide for support.
"We have to have reconstruction of Iraq with the help of the United Nations, NATO and, preferably, with Muslim troops, particularly Arabic-speaking troops from our allies such as Egypt and Morocco," he said.
Several of the Democratic hopefuls on the stage had supported the war in Iraq and made efforts to explain their criticism of postwar policy. But Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, called the war a mistake and the only woman on the stage, former Illinois senator Carol Moseley Braun suggested the war had sidetracked the pursuit of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
Although the debate was cordial overall, there were some small clashes over issues such as tax policy and free trade. Senator Joseph Lieberman chided Governor Dean for saying that he would undo trade agreements with nations that do not meet international labor and environmental standards. Senator Lieberman said dropping trade agreements with Mexico and other developing nations with poor standards would result in the loss of millions of U.S. jobs.
References to Latin America were frequent in this debate held at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and broadcast in simultaneous Spanish translation over the Univision network. Several candidates made an effort to say a phrase or two in Spanish.
This was the first of six presidential debates to be held from now until January, when the primary season begins. One candidate, the Reverend Al Sharpton, was unable to attend Thursday's debate because of foul weather in New York that delayed his flight.