Wesley Clark and Howard Dean, the two candidates leading most Democratic preference polls, came under sharp attack Thursday night from presidential rivals who challenged their loyalty to the party and its principles.
The war in Iraq -- a perpetual divide in the Democratic contest -- also dominated much of the discussion, as nine White House hopefuls shared a stage for 90 minutes of vigorous jousting that saw them needle each other as much as President Bush.
Clark, the retired Army general, came under the sharpest fire since he entered the race less than a month ago, with Dean launching the first attack.
Dean, a vigorous opponent of the war, charged that during Clark’s first days as a candidate he created confusion about how he would have voted on the resolution Congress passed last year authorizing use of force against Iraq.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a firm supporter of the war, chimed in, suggesting that Americans “have lost confidence in George Bush because he hasn’t leveled with them.”
“We need a candidate who will meet the test of reaching a conclusion and having the courage to stick with it,” Lieberman said.
But Clark maintained that he has been consistent all along.
When the debate moderator, Judy Woodruff of CNN, suggested that Clark had changed his statements about Iraq since entering the race, he cut her off.
“The answer is very clear,” he said. “The answer is, I would have voted for a resolution that took the problem to the United Nations. I would not have voted for a resolution that would have taken us to war. It’s that simple.”
The focus on Clark reflected the impact he has had on the Democratic contest since he launched his campaign. Indeed, the debate at a fine arts center in downtown Phoenix -- the third candidates’ forum in five weeks -- comes at a time when the race seems in many ways more unsettled than ever.
Dean lost his distinction as the clear-cut front-runner shortly after Clark entered the contest in mid-September. Within days, Clark had surged to the fore in several national opinion polls.
Clark’s candidacy, though, has suffered some reversals. This week, his campaign manager quit. And along with the charges that he has flip-flopped on the Iraq war, Clark has faced doubts about his loyalty to the Democratic Party.
In mid-2001, Clark had kind words for President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others in the administration. He also revealed that he voted for Republican Presidents Reagan and Nixon, and that he was not even registered as a Democrat when he began his presidential bid.
Defending his comments on the Bush team, Clark said Thursday, “Things have changed radically” since he praised them.
“Americans believed that they had elected a compassionate conservative,” Clark said. “Instead, we have a guy who has deepened the deficits. He’s taken us recklessly into war. And he’s been a radical, not a compassionate conservative.”
Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts said he and other Democrats had opposed Bush’s policies from the start. “Those of us who were fighting for Democratic principles ... had no lack of clarity about what ‘compassionate conservative’ meant to the country,” Kerry said. Clark was not the only target. Dean, as has been the case in past debates, came under repeated attack, especially for comments he made in the mid-1990s when, as governor of Vermont, he backed efforts to slow spending for Medicare.
“He was in agreement with the Republican stand” that was being pushed by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the Democratic House leader at the time.
“This is the party of Medicare and Social Security,” Gephardt said. “The Republicans have wanted to get rid of them forever. They’ll never do that on my watch.”
Dean responded sarcastically. He noted that when his staunch opposition to the war with Iraq vaulted him to the top-tier in the Democratic race, his rivals suggested he was too liberal to beat Bush, comparing him with the party’s 1972 presidential nominee, former Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota.
“Now they’re saying I’m Newt Gingrich and can’t win,” Dean said, adding that, like Gephardt, he was committed to protecting Social Security and Medicare.
Later, Kerry accused Dean of balancing Vermont’s budget in part by cutting prescription drug benefits for the state’s elderly.
“That’s silly, of course,” Dean replied, saying the matter involved a dispute with Vermont Republicans over cigarette taxes.
“It’s not silly,” Kerry shot back. “It’s what he did.”
The debate at one point veered into a discussion of class distinctions, when Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina was asked by panelist Jeff Greenfield of CNN why his upbringing under humble circumstances should matter to voters. Both Kerry and Dean hail from well-off families, and Edwards has made his background a central part of his campaign narrative.
Edwards -- who as an adult made millions as a trial lawyer before his election to the Senate -- said that “biography in the abstract is not important.”
“But what is important is when you lay out your ideas” to help middle-class Americans, “you have lived it every day of your life, from the time you grew up,” Edwards said. “Then the American people know that and it gives you credibility.”
Bush did not go unscathed. The candidates reiterated their attacks on his handling of the war in Iraq, and criticized his recent $87-billion spending request, part of which would help rebuild the country.
However, only Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio said he would flatly oppose the spending request. Kucinich called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, to be replaced by an international force.
Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois expressed her opposition to the war, but said U.S. troops needed to remain in Iraq until they could be withdrawn “with honor” after Iraq is “at least in as good shape as we found it.”
Gephardt assailed Bush’s failure to rally a broader international coalition behind the war and the rebuilding effort. “You remember on your report card you had your English grade and your history grade and then it says, ‘plays well with others?’ ” Gephardt said. “He flunked that part.”
Bush wasn’t the only Republican to be needled.
The Rev. Al Sharpton noted that Arnold Schwarzenegger -- “an actor [who] couldn’t win an Oscar” -- was poised to become the governor of California.
Kerry drew raucous shouts from the partisan crowd when he responded to a question about lowering costs for prescription drugs by suggesting Americans had two choices: hiring Rush Limbaugh’s housekeeper or electing Kerry as president.
Kerry was referring to an investigation of the radio commentator in connection with allegedly illegal purchases of painkillers.