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Democrats Criticize Bush in Spirited Debate - 2003-09-10

The nine Democrats vying to challenge President Bush in next year's election continued to hammer away at his handling of Iraq and the war on terrorism, Tuesday night. Even those Democrats who voted for last year's congressional resolution authorizing the president to use military force against Iraq continue to criticize the administration's post-war approach.

Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman says the president does not have "an exit strategy" in Iraq. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry says the president's delay in asking for international help on Iraq is -- in his words -- "an act of negligence of remarkable proportions."

Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt says the problems in post-war Iraq are symbolic of what he called a failed foreign policy. "He [President Bush] still has not gotten any money from any other country and any people of appreciable numbers from any other armed forces," says Mr. Gephardt. "This president's foreign policy is a miserable failure, he has failed the American people and he is failing the people in Iraq."

But another of the Democratic contenders challenged those who supported the war with their vote last year. Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich directed these comments at Congressman Gephardt. "Dick, I just want to say that when you were standing there in the Rose Garden [at the White House] with the president and you were giving him advice, I wished that you would have told him no, because as our Democratic leader, your position helped to [shape] mightily the direction of the war," said Mr. Kucinich.

Congressman Kucinich was the only one of the nine candidates who said he would vote against the president's request for $87 billion in aid to rebuild Iraq.

The only major moment of contention among the candidates came when Senator Lieberman accused former Vermont Governor Howard Dean of turning his back on Israel. Mr. Dean had said, in an earlier interview, that the United States should not take sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, prompting this exchange with Senator Lieberman.

LIEBERMAN: We do not gain strength as a negotiator if we compromise our support of Israel.

DEAN: My position on Israel is exactly the same as Bill Clinton's.

LIEBERMAN: Not right.

DEAN: Excuse me, Joe, I didn't interrupt you and I would appreciate it if you wouldn't interrupt me. I think America needs to be an honest broker. We desperately need peace in the Middle East.

Senator Lieberman has become the most aggressive Democratic candidate in trying to take on Howard Dean. The former Vermont governor has shot to the top of public opinion polls in some of the early primary states and has used his early momentum to raise millions of dollars and enlist thousands of volunteers across the country.

The debate was sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus and held at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore. It was televised, nationally, by the Fox News Channel. The question-and-answer session was marred by several interruptions from demonstrators supporting a fringe candidate.

Tuesday's debate is the latest in a series of candidate encounters between now and the first presidential primary, in Iowa in mid January.