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Democratic Presidential Contenders Debate Bush's Foreign Policy - 2004-01-07

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, the Democratic Party's frontrunner for president, is accusing the Bush administration of adopting a policy that will allow North Korea to become a nuclear power. The comments came during a Democratic presidential debate that focused on President Bush's foreign policy.

The two-hour debate in Des Moines, Iowa came less than two weeks before the state's caucuses, the first contest for the Democratic candidates seeking to challenge President Bush in this year's presidential election.

Former Governor Howard Dean leads his rivals in public opinion polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two contest states expected to be crucial in deciding which candidate will win the Democratic nomination.

During the debate Mr. Dean was critical of the Bush administration's refusal to hold one-on-one talks with North Korea. "The president of the United States is refusing to have bi-lateral negotiations with the North Koreans who almost certainly have a bomb already," he said. "This president is about to allow North Korea to become a nuclear power. The danger in that is not that the North Koreans will immediately attack us. The real danger is they will do what Pakistan is accused of. They will sell that weaponry to terrorists or to other countries like Libya or Pakistan for hard currency. That is a major national security threat and this president is not defending this country the way he ought to be."

The Iowa caucuses will take place on January 19 and surveys indicate Mr. Dean holds a narrow lead over Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt.

Mr. Gephardt criticized the Bush administration's decision to study the possibility of developing small nuclear weapons to fight terrorism. "One program that I would definitely cut out is the effort this administration is making to develop tactical nuclear weapons," he said. "I think it makes no sense. We should be trying to figure out how to get rid of nuclear weapons."

Another Democratic candidate, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, said the Bush administration has not put enough emphasis on issues related to nuclear nonproliferation. "The United States, this administration, has been negligent, absent, from the effort to put on the global agenda proliferation as a whole," he said. "We should have purchased all of the loose nuclear material, fissionable material, in Russia today. We should have taken the initiative long ago, recognizing the Islamic realities in Pakistan, to have worked with India to create a nuclear oversight capacity so that if there were an assassination or there were an overthrow, we know that the nuclear weapons can't fall in the hands of terrorists."

Also participating in the debate, sponsored and carried nationwide on National Public Radio (NPR), was Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich and former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun.

Three other candidates, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, retired General Wesley Clark and civil rights activist Al Sharpton skipped the debate.