Democrats Mix Strategy and Issues in Debate

Times Staff Writer

Nine Democratic presidential candidates, trying to kick-start their race to oppose President Bush in the 2004 election, agreed Saturday night it was time to turn Bush out of the White House but agreed on little else.

In their first debate in a campaign in which the first votes will not be cast until next winter’s initial primaries, they disagreed on whether the nation should have gone to war against Iraq, on how best to expand health care, and even on their own resumes.

But they kept the 90-minute encounter at the University of South Carolina on a largely dignified plane, despite the wisecrack by former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont that, after all, a little bit of verbal roughhousing wouldn’t be all bad because “this is partly about entertainment.”

The sharp retorts, such as they were, were mostly self-inflicted among the candidates seated at a table in a theater where college thespians this year performed “King Lear.”


To the notion that he is too aloof to click with American voters, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts replied: “Probably I ought to just disappear and contemplate that by myself.”

And to the suggestion that he may not be tough enough to be president, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut cracked to moderator George Stephanopoulos of ABC News: “I’d like to come over there and strangle you, George.”

The debate was the marquee event in a weekend-long spree of campaigning: a banquet and fish fry Friday night, and five-minute stump speeches at the state party convention Saturday.

South Carolina, a backwater among Democrats in recent presidential years, found itself in the national political spotlight. And because of the concentration of candidates, the Democratic campaign got a jolt of energy after existing in the shadows of the confrontation with Iraq.

In a stroke of convenient political scheduling, Bush, the almost-certain Republican nominee, will be following the Democrats into Columbia. He is delivering the spring commencement address at the university Friday.

The debate attracted the full field of Democratic candidates: Four senators (Kerry, Lieberman, John Edwards of North Carolina and Bob Graham of Florida, who is formally entering the race Tuesday); two members of the House of Representatives (Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio); a former governor (Dean); a former senator (Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois); and a community activist and pastor (the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York).

The debate was a mix of strategy and substance: Kerry, feeling most threatened in recent weeks by a perceived surge of interest in Dean in the early decision states of Iowa and New Hampshire, tangled with the former governor.

Following comments by Dean on the similar support for gay rights the two hold, Kerry snapped: “I don’t need any lectures on courage from Gov. Dean.” It was a barely veiled reference to Kerry’s medal-winning service in Vietnam.


Candidates sought to take positions that would differentiate each from the others.

On the war, Kerry said: “It was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein.”

Lieberman: “Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States and, most particularly, to his neighbors.... No Democrat will be elected president in 2004 who is not strong on defense, and this war was a test of that strength.”

Dean: “This was the wrong war at the wrong time.”


Gephardt, who has put forward a plan to provide health care for all Americans, was challenged on the cost, which would be met by repealing Bush’s 2001 $1.35-trillion tax cuts. Lieberman said he would not raise taxes to pay for health care; Edwards was skeptical about leaving the decision to “big corporate America.”

Making the argument that he was best-positioned to win, Lieberman reminded the audience of his role as Al Gore’s vice presidential running mate in 2000 and the contested results of that election. “I know I can beat George Bush,” he said. “Al Gore and I already did it.”

Quadrennial tinkering with the primary election calendar has given South Carolina a new prominence in the primary. Its voters will go to the polls Feb. 3, 2004.

Coming so early in the campaign season, the state, voting ahead of any other in the Deep South, could assume a make-or-break status for the candidates that emerge from the Iowa caucuses Jan. 19 and then the New Hampshire primary Jan. 27.


Laying out position after position suggesting an affinity with the state’s moderate and conservative Democrats, Lieberman said he thought licensing and registration of firearms was a bad idea.

Graham and Edwards played the “electability” cards: Graham noted the last three Democrats elected to the presidency were Southerners -- Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Although the debate was a premier event on the political calendar, it was a limited draw beyond the Drayton Hall Theatre where it was held before an audience made up of supporters of individual campaigns and political activists in general.

No South Carolina television station carried it live. However, C-SPAN planned to present several replays today and Monday. “This Week,” the ABC Sunday morning show, planned to broadcast excerpts, and ABC was making it available on the Internet.


The question going into the debate was: Who would stand out?

Coming out, the answer was: No one swept away the others.


Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak in San Francisco contributed to this report.