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Dean and Lieberman tangle in debate

Remarks on US role in Mideast draw rebuke from senator

BALTIMORE - In their most spirited debate to date, the nine Democratic presidential candidates began to display real differences in their policies and styles last night, attacking one another over foreign policy even as they sought to appeal to a mostly African-American crowd.

The lively event, interrupted several times by the shouts of protesters who infiltrated the crowd, gave rise to an especially testy duel between Senator Joseph I. Lieberman and former Vermont governor Howard Dean over Dean's recent remark that the United States should avoid taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"All of us here on the stage have quite correctly criticized George W. Bush for not standing by our values in our foreign policy and for breaking our most critical alliances. That, with all respect, is exactly what Howard Dean's comments over the last week about the Middle East have done," Lieberman said as he stood at a lectern next to Dean.

Dean responded: "I'm disappointed in Joe. My position on Israel is exactly the same as Bill Clinton's."

Lieberman, who has been one of the most aggressive participants in the three Democratic debates so far, interrupted, saying, "Not right."

The debate forced a number of the candidates to address sensitive issues about their campaigns: Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts was asked to defend his contention that he voted to authorize a threat against Iraq, not to sanction war.

"I voted to authorize, it was the right vote," Kerry said, offering a wordy explanation of his thinking. "And the reason I mentioned the threat is that we had to give life to the threat." He added: "If we hadn't voted the way we voted, we would not have been able to have a chance of going to the United Nations and stopping the president, in effect, who already had the votes and who was obviously asking serious questions about whether or not the Congress was going to be there to enforce the effort to create a threat."

Delivered before a largely African-American audience at Morgan State University, a historically black school in Baltimore, the debate offered the candidates a chance to reach out to a key Democratic constituency. And all the candidates acknowledged issues considered important to the black community; Lieberman said that the 2000 recount in Florida had robbed black voters of their right to express themselves.

Senator John Edwards of North Carolina said that the public education system was divided between "haves" and "have-nots."

For Dean, race was a sensitive issue that he had to confront. Recent reports have suggested that that his largely white audiences reflect a lack of diversity among his supporters in his mostly white home state of Vermont. "If the percent of minorities that's in your state has anything to do with how you can connect with African-American voters, then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King," Dean said, referring to the Republican senator from Mississippi who was forced to quit as majority leader over comments perceived as racially insensitive.

"I'll tell you why I connect with African-American audiences. I'm the only white politician that ever talks about race in front of white audiences. Black folks have heard lectures from white politicians for a long time. We always talk about race. White folks need to talk to white people in America about race," Dean said.

Much of the heat during the 90-minute debate was generated by the topic of Iraq. Senator Bob Graham of Florida, asked whether he felt the president had misled the nation in building the case for war in Iraq, answered flatly, "Yes."

Kerry dodged the same question, quipping, "The reason I can't tell you with certainty whether the president misled us is because I don't have a clue what he really knew about it, or whether he was just reading what was put in front of him."

The evening featured sharp criticisms from some of the candidates who are showing poorly in polls. Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio criticized both Kerry and Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri for voting for the war but complaining about the aftermath. The Rev. Al Sharpton, the New York civil rights activist, also criticized Gephardt, who was the House Democratic leader when Congress voted in 2002 to authorize military action in Iraq. In a debate last week, and again last night, Gephardt called the president's foreign policy, "a miserable failure."

Sharpton said Gephardt and the others should have pressed for an exit strategy from Iraq beforehand.

"I've never heard of people acting like we didn't need an exit, when they gave him the entrance. That is a miserable failure," Sharpton said. "I would not run around trying to be the world's bully, and I would not act like a gang leader, like George Bush did, saying, `Let's get it on,' when I've got troops over there."

The debate was repeatedly interrupted by the hecklers shouting slogans in favor of perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche. Sharpton repeatedly appealed for quiet, but Lieberman joked: "The only good news for all of us is that [Arizona Senator] John McCain told me that no one's been elected since 1972 that Lyndon LaRouche and his people have not protested."

With Dean leading in recent polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the pre-debate buildup was rife with attacks on the former governor from both his Democratic rivals and the Republican National Committee, which speaks on behalf of the White House for most campaign matters.

Lieberman began criticizing Dean on Monday for saying during an appearance in Santa Fe last week that "it's not our place to take sides" in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

The senator said in a statement: "If this is a well-thought-out position, it's a mistake, and a major break from a half a century of American foreign policy. If it's not, it's very important for Howard Dean, as a candidate for president, to think before he talks."

Dean defended his comment, saying the only way to bring peace to the Middle East is for the United States to be perceived as a neutral party, instead of highlighting its longstanding support for Israel.

Kornblut reported from Baltimore, Johnson reported from Boston. Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com.

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