President Bush was the major target in the first official debate among the Democrats vying to challenge him for re-election next year. But, the Democratic candidates, for the most part, steered clear of attacking each other.

Eight of the nine Democratic candidates took part in the debate held in New Mexico. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton could not make it because his flight was delayed by bad weather.

Perhaps the strongest criticism of the president came from Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt who blasted the administration's handling of the war aftermath in Iraq.

"We have to form an international coalition to get it done," he said. "This president is a miserable failure, he is a miserable failure."

While that statement may not play well in the general election next year, it does appeal to liberal Democratic activists who want to deny Mr. Bush a second term in the White House.

"Dick Gephardt was on fire and his Bush-bashing was probably more extreme than anyone else's and that sells with partisan Democrats," said University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato. "They don't just dislike George W. Bush, they hate George W. Bush and they want to respond to a candidate who hates him equally."

It is that kind of appeal to Democratic anger that has catapulted former Vermont Governor Howard Dean to the top of opinion polls in the key early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

During the debate he joined with the other Democrats in urging the president to work more closely with the United Nations and U.S. allies in rebuilding Iraq.

"I believed from the beginning that we should not go into Iraq without the United Nations as our partner," Mr. Dean said. "And in this situation, fortunately, the president is finally beginning to see the light. We cannot do this by ourselves. We cannot have an American occupation."

With Howard Dean the closest thing to a frontrunner the Democrats have at the moment, it was expected that he would become a target for his rivals. But outside of a few brief skirmishes, it did not happen.

Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman challenged a statement Mr. Dean made on trade agreements and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich was dismissive of the former governor's boasts about balancing his state's budget.

"And you know, you can talk about balancing the budget in Vermont, but Vermont does not have a military," he said. "And if you are not going to cut the military and you are talking about balancing the budget, then what are you going to do about social spending. Hello?"

New Mexico's Democratic governor, Bill Richardson, says he expected some of Mr. Dean's rivals to go after him in a bid to improve their standings in the polls.

"But, quite frankly, I was surprised that there were not more barbs at each other because you want to start moving up in the polls, you want to start differentiating yourselves," he said.

It did not surprise Washington-based political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. He says the nine Democrats must first try to establish themselves as viable candidates before they can take on their rivals.

"It is going to get really hot and heavy for the two weeks in early January before the Iowa Caucuses. Then it is going to be apparent to the candidates if they really have to try to beat up Howard Dean or if the media has taken its toll," he said. "But I still think in the next few weeks that they are going to be rather delicate in taking one another on. They are trying to define themselves before they can go comparative."

The New Mexico debate was the first of six sponsored by the Democratic Party, so there will be plenty of opportunities for the candidates to go after each other before the first primary votes are cast in January.