DETROIT -- Seizing on a fresh round of violence in Iraq, Democratic candidates for president vigorously assailed President Bush -- and one another -- for their positions on military action and its aftermath, turning a televised debate last night into one of the more lively displays of the political season so far.
Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who has suffered intense criticism for his seemingly ambiguous position on Iraq, sought to present a clear explanation for his decision to authorize military force but later oppose the $87 billion proposal to pay for the war's aftermath. "It is absolutely consistent, because what I voted for was to hold Saddam Hussein accountable, but to do it right," Kerry said. "This president has done it wrong every step of the way." He ridiculed Bush's efforts to internationalize the war as a "fraudulent coalition."
In a similar vein, retired General Wesley K. Clark faced questions about whether he would have supported the war and the funding bill. He shifted the focus of his answer back toward Bush, accusing him of a "bait and switch" and quipping: "President Bush said he was going to get Osama bin Laden, dead or alive. Instead, he went after Saddam Hussein. He doesn't have either one of them today."
Al Sharpton said: "We cannot afford to play Bush roulette . . . with the lives of American troops."
But the other candidates -- both for and against the war -- did their best to portray Kerry and Clark, as well as Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, as waffling on Iraq. While Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, a strong advocate of the war, accused Clark of taking "six different positions on whether going to war was a good idea," former governor Howard Dean of Vermont repeated his insistence that he was the war's most staunch opponent.
"My foreign policy experience might be more valuable" than that of some of the other candidates, Dean said, noting that he had as much foreign policy experience as Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton when they went to the White House. He repeated his opposition to the war. While Dean was speaking, his aides fired off a press release accusing Clark of inconsistency on Iraq, and trying to talk "his way out of contradiction."
Kerry responded in the debate minutes later by belittling Dean for comparing himself to Bush. "We are electing a president of the United States, not a staff," Kerry said.
The debate -- the Democrats' fifth in seven weeks -- followed yesterday's brazen rocket attack on the Baghdad hotel where Paul D. Wolfowitz, the second-most senior civilian at the Pentagon, was staying over the weekend. Wolfowitz was unhurt, but Democrats seized on the high-profile near-miss as further evidence the administration's Iraq policy is in disarray.
Although the war in Iraq now shares equal billing with domestic issues on the Democrats' agenda, the military action and its aftermath remain a central fault line in the Democratic primary.
Set in Detroit, the 90-minute debate showcased the candidates for two key groups of voters: union members and African-Americans, both powerful forces in the Michigan caucuses on Feb. 7. More strategically, the location gave Democrats a chance to begin building general election support in this critical swing state, whose 17 Electoral College votes have made it a prime target for candidates from both parties.
With just 12 weeks left until the first major contest, in Iowa, several of the Democratic contenders have begun to escalate their attacks on one another. And they continued the strategy last night.
Dean launched the first round of markedly negative ads last week -- a move his advisers said was intended to blunt increasingly sharp criticism from his rivals over his stance on Medicare, taxes, and foreign policy. But the other campaigns decried Dean's decision to "go negative," and expressed hope that the expensive ad campaign is a sign that Dean feels insecure about his front-runner status. While Dean maintains a commanding lead in the New Hampshire race, he and Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri are in a close fight for Iowa, and most of the later primary contests are largely up for grabs.
The accelerated primary schedule has led to an array of strategies across the Democratic field, with Lieberman and Clark deciding to skip the Iowa caucuses in favor of New Hampshire, Arizona, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, among other battlegrounds.
Clark, who has been struggling with laryngitis, toured New Hampshire for much of last week and officially kicked off his campaign there Saturday with a visit to his new state headquarters. Yet neither Clark, who has enjoyed much media attention since entering the race on Sept. 17, nor Lieberman, who has been campaigning all year, has turned into a vote-getting leader in the Democratic field in key states with early primaries. Eight percent of New Hampshire voters said they supported Clark in yesterday's Globe poll, and 5 percent back Lieberman.