Democratic presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, a staunch supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, on Monday rapped his 2004 rivals who opposed the war and chided others for criticizing its rationale in hindsight.
"By their words, some in my party threaten to send a message that they don't know a just war when they see it, and, more broadly, that they're not prepared to use our military strength to protect our security and the cause of freedom," the senator from Connecticut said in a speech at the Capitol.
Lieberman's remarks stoked debate among Democrats on an issue that split the party before the 2002 midterm elections and could do the same in 2004.
With his speech, Lieberman sought to depict himself as the most hawkish of the Democrats on national security issues. He noted that he voted for the 1991 Persian Gulf War resolution and last fall's measure authorizing President Bush to use military force against Iraq.
Lieberman's strategy may prove risky for the party's primaries and caucuses -- dominated by a left-of-center electorate -- but could pay off in the general election if he wins the nomination.
"The dividing issue at the moment appears to be Iraq, and who voted how, when and why," said J. Mark Wrighton, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "Trying to find the right balance on the issue is very, very difficult. It may be the issue where the Democratic hopefuls begin to take big shots at each other."
On one point, the Democratic candidates have coalesced: Bush, they say, botched part of his argument for war by including a now-disputed assertion on Iraq's nuclear ambitions in his State of the Union address in January.
Lieberman, in his speech and in interviews Monday, assailed Bush for a misstep that he said has eroded the administration's credibility.
"It has caused too many Americans to begin to distrust their government," Lieberman said, "and it has made us weaker in the world."
He called on the president to fire those responsible for the assertion's inclusion in the State of the Union speech; last week, deputy national security advisor Stephen Hadley took much of the blame.
Lieberman also faulted the administration for failing to plan better for the challenges of rebuilding Iraq.
Turning his attention to fellow Democrats, Lieberman said some have seized upon "this emerging scandal" over the State of the Union speech "with a disquieting zeal, as though it offers proof that they were right all along."
He added: "The same is true of some of those who supported the war, but now seem to have forgotten why."
In his prepared speech, Lieberman did not name the targets of his criticism.
But under questioning from reporters, he cited former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, an outspoken opponent of the war, and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who both voted for last fall's Iraq resolution.
Asked about the criticisms Kerry and Gephardt have directed at Bush recently over Iraq, Lieberman said: "There's a danger that in expressing the justified questions about the 16 words in the State of the Union, about the stunning lack of preparedness of the Bush administration for post-Saddam Iraq, that we obscure the fact that this was a just war."
Lieberman acknowledged the challenge he faces in wooing anti-war Democrats. "I hope they will respect me for saying what I believe is right," he said.