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Democratic Candidates Strive to Look 'Presidential' During New Hampshire Debate - 2004-01-23

The seven Democrats running for president met in their final debate before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, the next major test in the 2004 presidential campaign.

The backdrop for this last debate before Tuesday's crucial primary was the shifting fortunes for two candidates: Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.

Several new polls indicate Senator Kerry, the winner in the Iowa caucuses, has now moved into a five-to-ten point lead in New Hampshire over Mr. Dean, who had been leading here for months.

There were no major candidate clashes during Thursday's debate. All seven contenders strove to look as presidential as possible and focused their fire on President Bush instead of each other.

The new presumed front-runner in the race, Senator Kerry, drew sharp differences with the president over the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

"And he has run the most arrogant, inept, reckless and ideological foreign policy in the modern history of our country," senator Kerry said.

For his part, Howard Dean abandoned the aggressive tone he had demonstrated in previous debates and focused more on policy than personalities.

He also seemed to acknowledge the concern he created with his raucous speech to supporters in Iowa after his disappointing third-place finish in the caucus vote on Monday.

"I'm not a perfect person and I think a lot of people have had a lot of fun at my expense over the Iowa hooting and hollering and that is justified," he said. "But the one thing I can tell you is that I am not kidding about what I say. The things that I do are things that I believe in and I think it is important that the president of the United States be willing to stand up for what's right and not stand up for what's popular."

The Dean speech has become fodder for late night television comedians and spoofs on the Internet and many political analysts contend it may have damaged his White House hopes.

Mr. Dean did get some sympathy from one of his rivals, if only in jest. This is New York civil rights activist Al Sharpton.

"I wanted to say to Governor Dean, don't be hard on yourself for hooting and hollering. If I had spent the money you did and got 18 percent [of the vote] I would still be in Iowa hooting and hollering," he joked.

In an interview with ABC television aired after the debate, Mr. Dean said he did not think his Iowa speech was, "presidential."

For the most part, all seven candidates tried to make the case that they would be the strongest opponent against President Bush in the November election.

The latest polls showed retired General Wesley Clark running a strong third in New Hampshire, even as some of his rivals continue to point out that he voted for Republican presidents until the 1990's.

General Clark sought to reassure New Hampshire Democrats that he is loyal to the party.

"I'm in this party now and I will bring a lot of other people into the party too and that is what we need to do to win in November," general Clark said.

The others taking part in the televised debate were North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who is trying to build off his surprisingly strong second-place finish in Iowa, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich.

Tuesday's New Hampshire primary is a crucial early test in the 2004 campaign. Historically, the eventual party nominee generally finishes either first or second in the primary. After the New Hampshire, the next big test is the South Carolina primary on February 3.