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Democrats rip Bush in 8-way debate

ALBUQUERQUE -- Democratic presidential contenders, appearing in their first nationally televised debate, overwhelmingly denounced President Bush last night for his handling of the war in Iraq and economic policy. They avoided angry exchanges with one another, however, even as they tried to distinguish themselves in a crowded field.

In a dual-language event designed to appeal to Latino voters, the candidates paid particular attention to immigration issues and hazarded a few stilted phrases in Spanish, adding a slightly different dimension to an otherwise predictable discussion of foreign and domestic policies. One of the few notable disagreements among the eight participants was over free trade and job creation.

Two of the contenders, Representatives Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, blamed the North American Free Trade Agreement for chasing manufacturing jobs abroad -- a subject dear to many union workers who play a role in the Democratic primary.

But few sparks flew, despite predictions of a showdown between former Vermont governor Howard Dean and Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the two closest rivals for front-runner status in fund-raising and the polls. Instead, Dean and Kerry -- as well as the other candidates onstage -- sought to outdo each other in their criticism of Bush, ridiculing and attacking the president as bungling the war effort, foreign policy, the economy, trade issues, and health care.

"This president is going to have to go back to the very people he humiliated -- our allies -- on the way into Iraq and hope they will now agree with us that we need their help," Dean said at the start of a half-hour segment that focused on Iraq and military policy.

"This president is a miserable failure," Gephardt said.

"It would be wonderful to have a president of the United States who could find the rest of the countries in this hemisphere," Kerry said.

The debate, broadcast from the campus of the University of New Mexico, appeared to do little to shift the political landscape and yielded almost no news from the eight contenders in attendance.

Only the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York, whose flight was affected by foul weather, did not appear.

It did, however, showcase the candidates together on national television for the first time more than a year before the final vote in the November 2004 contest -- adding new momentum to a Democratic primary race that has begun earlier than ever and is in full swing in more than a half-dozen states.

While fund-raising totals and polling results catapulted Dean ahead during the summer, other candidates maintained that voters have not begun paying attention until now, making the debate an important proving ground four months before the first primary contest. At least five more debates are scheduled in the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses.

"I really think it's a television debut for all . . . of them," Kathleen Sullivan, chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said of the candidates last night. "The spotlight is on Governor Dean generally right now because he is the front-runner, but I think that it's really an introductory debate for everybody. Labor Day is behind us, and now people are really starting to pay attention."

On Iraq, Kerry did draw a distinction between his proposed resolution to the ongoing violence and that proposed by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut -- who would send in more US troops to maintain security. "I disagree with Joe Lieberman on this," Kerry said. "We should not send more American troops. That would be the worst thing. We do not want to have more Americanization. We do not want a greater sense of American occupation. We need to minimize that. And the way to do that is do everything possible, including sharing the power, to bring other countries in to take the burden."

Lieberman also took Dean to task several times, most pointedly over the issue of labor standards in nations with which the United States trades. Lieberman said Dean espoused something "which I found to be stunning, which is that he would not have bilateral trade agreements with any country that did not observe fully American standards."

"Now that would mean we'd break our trade agreements with Mexico, with Latin America, with most of the rest of the world. That would cost us millions of jobs," Lieberman said. "One out of every five jobs in America is tied up with trade. So if that ever happened, I'd say that the Bush recession would be followed by the Dean depression."

In fact, Dean did advocate higher standards, according to a column by Washington Post columnist Fred Hiatt last month. But last night, he interrupted Lieberman to clarify his stance. "We do have to have trade relations which rely on equality and labor standards throughout the world. It doesn't have to be American labor standards; it could be the International Labor Organization," Dean said.

Perhaps the harshest remark came after the debate, when Lieberman ridiculed Kerry's explanation for his vote in favor of a resolution authorizing military force in Iraq.

"I thought that John Kerry's statement in his announcement address -- that he voted for the resolution just to threaten Saddam Hussein -- was unbelievable. It was clearly an authorization for President Bush to use force against Saddam," Lieberman said. "I don't get it. He's been criticizing Howard Dean for lacking experience to lead America in the world today. It's true. It's not the best time to put a rookie in charge of our country's future. It hasn't been a good time to have a cowboy in charge of our future, but we also don't need a waffler in charge of our country's future."

But if the disagreements aired during the debate failed to highlight sharp differences between the campaigns, the evening did give the Democratic Party an opportunity to target those who will be key in the general election -- voters in New Mexico, an important battleground state, and Hispanics, who represent an increasing share of the electorate and who have been heavily wooed by Bush.

The debate was carried by Univision, the Spanish-language station that sponsored the event.

It was not quite a traditional debate: Instead of direct confrontation between the candidates, the forum allowed for a discussion of current affairs, controlled by a moderator.

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