In his second debate, Democratic rivals don't give Clark a pass
He and Dean contend for role of outsider
PHOENIX -- Howard Dean and Wesley K. Clark vied for the title of Washington outsider last night as all nine candidates at a Democratic presidential debate sought to tap voter frustration -- reflected in the successful California recall election -- and align themselves with the concerns of average Americans.
Clark, the retired general and former NATO commander who received relatively light treatment in his first debate last month, came under fire early on from Dean and senators John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut for initially praising the US-led offensive in Iraq, then opposing it. Clark stayed cool, though he said it was "embarrassing" that the others weren't focusing their criticisms on Republicans.
"Wes Clark, welcome to the Democratic presidential campaign," retorted Lieberman. "None of us are above questioning. That's what this is all about."
The 90-minute debate included some of the sharpest exchanges among the candidates so far, but it also amounted to the broadest articulation yet of Democratic Party ideals. Dean and Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Illinois championed universal health insurance; Lieberman and Senator John Edwards of North Carolina showered praise on labor unions and immigrants; Kerry promised to be a fierce defender of the environment; and nearly every candidate echoed Bill Clinton's election-winning message about addressing the needs of the "forgotten middle class."
From the start, the candidates angled to separate themselves from the pack. Dean, in an unusual move for a widely perceived front-runner, was the first to go on the offensive last night against Clark over the war, and also blasted Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman, and Gephardt for giving President Bush "a blank check to go to war in Iraq."
Dean -- who is trying to tamp down public curiosity about Clark and fend off attacks from his rivals -- also argued that Democrats are attracting voters because Washington culture has tainted the party. "We can't just change presidents here. We're trying to change America, and that's what I want to do," he said.
"In Washington the culture is say whatever it takes to get elected," he continued. "And the minute you're willing to say whatever it takes to get elected, you lose, because the American people are not nearly as dumb as the people in Washington think we are."
Clark also cast himself as a Washington outsider who disdains negative politics, but he acknowledged praising the US-led offensive in Iraq as it was unfolding. He said he ultimately decided the war was a terrible error. "I would never have voted for war. The war was an unnecessary war, it was an elective war, and it's been a huge strategic mistake for this country," he said.
But Kerry and Dean listed what they said were Clark's transgressions, including praise for the GOP in May 2001, a time when Republicans had moved towards oil drilling in Alaska and pushed through the first of President Bush's massive tax cuts.
"At that moment, the general was prepared to say they were the `right people,' " Kerry said. "At that moment, those of us who were fighting for Democratic principles and have been for 35 years or more were fighting against what they were doing to this country."
Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, who like Dean opposed the war in Iraq, sought an advantage with anti-war voters by noting that the former Vermont governor supported maintaining the occupation force of nearly 150,000 US troops. "If we're wrong to be there, we should get our troops out," said Kucinich.
Edwards sought to distinguish himself by underlining his working-class roots, though he has earned millions as a trial lawyer. "I want this president to explain to the American people why a multimillionaire, sitting by the swimming pool, getting a statement each month to see how much money he's making, is paying a lower tax rate than a schoolteacher, a firefighter, a secretary," he said.
At one point, the candidates were asked about their party's prospects for 2004 in the aftermath of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger's election as governor of California. "We are 48 hours away from watching an actor that couldn't win an Oscar winning to be the governor of California," the Rev. Al Sharpton quipped.
Carol Moseley Braun, the former senator from Illinois, said she had the best chance against Bush because she is the lone woman in the race. "You guys, the men, have ruined our country. . . . It's time to give a woman a chance," she said.
The staging of last night's debate in Phoenix, the nation's sixth largest city, was the clearest sign yet of Arizona's emergence as a major player in the nominating process next year. Arizona's new Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano, who co-hosted the debate with CNN, moved up the state's primary by about three weeks, to Feb. 3, 2004, to give Arizonans greater sway following the voting in Iowa and New Hampshire in January.
"Arizona represents the kind of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity that has to come together next year if we're going to beat George W. Bush," Jim Pederson, chairman of the state Democratic party, said in an interview before the debate.
More than any other voting bloc, Latinos are seen as crucial in the February balloting. They are about 27 percent of the state's fast-growing population -- up from 25 percent, or 1.3 million people, in 2000 -- and Hispanic legislators and business leaders have been assiduously courted by the Democratic rivals.
Lieberman, who views a strong showing in Arizona as crucial to his political fortunes, moved earlier than most candidates to lock up Hispanic endorsements. Kerry, Dean, and Gephardt also have some big-name Hispanic congressmen and other politicians in their corners.