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Democratic Party Presidential Nominees Compete on Iraq Issue - 2003-11-25

Iraq continues to be a major issue in the early stages of the battle for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

The latest Democratic sparring over Iraq came at a candidate's debate in Iowa, sponsored by the cable news network MSNBC. Iowa will kick off the presidential nominating process with its presidential caucuses on January 19.

Retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark sought to reinvigorate his White House hopes by launching a full broadside on the president's decision to go to war in Iraq.

"This administration took us to war recklessly and without need to do so, and it was wrong, and that is the issue in this election and that is the issue we should be taking to the American people," he said.

But as the Democratic contenders criticized the president, they also went after each other over policy differences concerning Iraq.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry said his foreign policy experience in the Congress gives him an advantage over former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, considered by many the early front-runner for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination next year.

"I have never suggested that he [Dean] is incapable of it," said Senator Kerry. "I have said that the experience is a very important and critical issue in our ability to challenge George Bush in a time of war."

Howard Dean continued to criticize Senator Kerry and the other Democratic candidates who voted to support President Bush's request for congressional authority to use force in Iraq last year.

"That was the wrong thing to do," he insisted. "This was an abdication, a failure on the part of Congress, and Senator Kerry was part of that failure.

"I do not think that is the kind of experience we need in foreign affairs in the White House," continued Mr. Dean. "I think we need somebody who is going to make independent judgments and not cede the role of Congress in making foreign policy and declaring war."

That brought a response from Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt, who said at one time Mr. Dean considered supporting the use of force against Saddam Hussein, but then changed his mind.

"If we are going to beat George Bush, we have got to take a position of leadership on these issues and stick with them," said Congressman Gephardt. "We can not be all over the lot. I have done that. I can take George Bush on on this issue of security and keeping our people safe."

Congressman Gephardt is engaged in a close battle with former Governor Dean in the Iowa Caucuses. Mr. Dean and Senator Kerry are the top competitors in the New Hampshire primary, which will be held one week after the Iowa vote in late January.

Even as the Democrats squabble amongst themselves over Iraq, President Bush continues to defend his handling of Iraq. He appeared before U.S. Army troops in Colorado.

"We are fighting the terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other parts of the world so we do not have to fight them on the streets of our own cities," he said.

Political analysts say the Democratic debates are likely to get increasingly confrontational as the nine contenders try to distinguish themselves before the primaries begin early next year.