DES MOINES - The tight race to win Iowa's presidential caucuses spurred two leading candidates to launch repeated attacks yesterday on Democratic front-runner Howard Dean for his thin experience in national security and his education and health spending as governor of Vermont.
At a debate in which eight of the nine candidates participated, several of the Democrats also praised the recent Massachusetts court ruling on same-sex marriage. Although none disagreed with it, only two endorsed the decision outright: the Rev. Al Sharpton and former senator Carol Moseley Braun, the field's two black candidates, who called it a civil rights issue tantamount to the legalization of interracial marriage a half-century ago.
Senator John F. Kerry demurred when asked whether he would press his home state Legislature to codify the ruling. He said he supported spousal rights for gay couples, but believed ``the term `marriage' gets in the way of what is really being talked about here.''
During a long round of questions about the Iraq war, former Army general Wesley K. Clark, Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, and Sharpton used stinging language to accuse President Bush of failing in his duties as commander in chief.
``This president misled the American people and Congress into war,'' said Clark, a former supreme allied commander of NATO. ``It's wrong. If you wrote this script as a movie, it would be rejected as being outrageous. Here we are, with the United States Army half committed in Iraq, no success strategy.''
Yesterday's forum - occurring less than two months before Iowa's Jan. 19 presidential caucuses - prominently featured two emerging strategies for the leading candidates: diminish Dean by attacking the former governor's record in Vermont and his perceived vulnerabilities in a match-up against Bush and pound the president on national security issues at every opportunity.
Going on the attack early against Dean, Richard A. Gephardt - who has been jockeying with Dean for first place in the Iowa polls - and Kerry, who has been running a close third, showed their most aggressive tactics yet against the front-runner, questioning his experience to be commander in chief and his political values as a Democrat.
Gephardt contended that Dean ``cut [programs for] the most vulnerable in our society'' to balance Vermont's budget. Kerry followed up by asking Dean eight times in 90 seconds whether he would slow the rate of growth in the Medicare health insurance program for older Americans.
The Massachusetts senator reprised the interrogation strategy against Dean on other topics.
Dean appeared to grow annoyed at Kerry's Medicare questions, at one point arching his eyebrows in a show of irritation. He tried to end the showdown with humor - ``I'd like to slow the rate of growth of this debate, if I could'' - but ultimately silenced Kerry by responding, ``We will not cut Medicare in order to balance the budget.''
Defending his record as governor, Dean said that he never cut benefits for senior citizens or teachers and that he increased spending on education and human services by 25 percent and 33 percent, respectively.
``The people of Vermont were better off when I left the governor's office than they were when I got there,'' said Dean, who left office early this year.
The forum was the fifth of six meetings sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee.
With polls suggesting a close race, the forum took place as the local front-runners - Gephardt, Dean, and Kerry - launched major ad buys.
Dean is running a spot criticizing Gephardt by name both for voting in favor of last year's congressional resolution authorizing the war against Iraq and for the $87 billion appropriation to fund the continuing military operations there. Over the weekend, Gephardt responded with his own commercial. Kerry, meanwhile, is running a commercial critizing Bush in response to an ad - sponsored by the Republican National Committee - that chastises the Democrats for criticizing Bush amid the nation's war on terror.
With the caucuses traditionally decided by superior organizing, all of the campaigns are eagerly courting endorsements by Governor Tom Vilsack and Senator Tom Harkin, both Democrats. The tension was visible last night as rival campaigns squared off outside the hall.
Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who has tried to position himself as the ``positive'' candidate in the race, chided Gephardt, Dean, and Kerry, saying they are sniping at one another.
Dean, in remarks to reporters after the debate, accused Kerry and Gephardt of distorting his Vermont record because ``the frank truth is they don't have a lot to show for a long time in Congress.''
``We didn't throw old people under the bus,'' Dean said. ``This is just politics as usual from Washington, and if you want to find out what really happened in Vermont, come on up.''
Each of the candidates spoke against the current Medicare overhaul now nearing approval in Congress. The forthcoming Senate vote on Medicare had kept Kerry and Edwards in Washington, D.C.; they participated in the forum by satellite. Issues of national security and the Iraq conflict spurred the most full-throated debate and denunciations of Bush.
Kucinich, a strong opponent of the Iraq war, held up newspaper pages featuring photographs of American casualties in Iraq.
``It's wrong for the deaths to keep piling up,'' Kucinich said. ``We've got to get our troops home.''
Kerry said, in response to a question about Dean's lack of experience in foreign affairs, that the Democrats needed a nominee who could credibly attack Bush's national security record.
``We have to run against a wartime president in a world that is suffering from terror,'' Kerry said.
``I've never suggested that [Dean's] incapable of it. I've said that the experience is very important and critical in our ability to challenge George Bush in the time of war.''
Dean shot back by raising Kerry's Senate vote last year authorizing military action in Iraq, as Bush had requested.
``Senator Kerry is talking about experience in foreign affairs; his experience led him to give the president of the United States a blank check to invade Iraq,'' Dean said.
At another point in the debate, Sharpton faced a question from moderator Tom Brokaw about whether he would apologize for his fervent defense of Tawana Brawley, a young black woman who alleged in 1987 that she was gang-raped by white law enforcement officers. A grand jury later deemed her claims a hoax.
Sharpton said he was defending a person who had made unsettling allegations that he believed. He criticized Brokaw, anchor of ``NBC Nightly News,'' for equating the question of an apology over the Brawley case to a recent apology by Dean. Dean apologized for the pain he caused when he said he was seeking the support of white voters who brandish the Confederate Flag on their pickups.
``I think that's a stretch even for Tom Brokaw,'' Sharpton said.
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who has bowed out of the Iowa race, initially said he would not participate in the debate. Like Edwards and Kerry, he was in Washington and wanted to participate via satellite. The Democratic National Committee and MSNBC said they made their decision to exclude Lieberman after two unnamed campaigns objected to his participation and because of the logistical problems of having three candidates appear remotely.