DETROIT - United in their criticism of President Bush on both foreign and domestic policy, the nine Democratic presidential contenders squared off in a nationally televised debate last night.
“I don't think we can beat President Bush by being `Bush light', I think we've got to stand up for Democratic principles,” said Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor.
Sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and televised live nationally by the Fox News Channel, the 90-minute debate took place at the Fox Theatre.
All nine candidates appeared: Mr. Dean; U.S. Senators John Edwards of North Carolina, John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut; U.S. Representatives Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Dennis Kucinich of Ohio; the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York; former Senator Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark.
The nine are vying for the support of Michigan Democrats in advance of their Feb. 7 caucus, which comes after January's Iowa and New Hampshire contests. Michigan has not supported a Republican for president since 1988.
All of the candidates criticized President Bush's military policies during their first statements of the debate.
Many of them called for seeking broader international support for operations in Iraq and criticized President Bush for proceeding there militarily without real justification.
“He promised he would go to war as a last resort, words that mean something to a veteran,” said Mr. Kerry, who served in Vietnam. “He did not. He's broken every promise.”
Mr. Sharpton, who won approval and applause from the crowd of 3,000 throughout the evening with his wit, said the Iraq action was wrong from the beginning.
“We cannot continue to play Bush roulette,” Mr. Sharpton said.
“We need to show that we really love the troops by bringing the troops home.”
Mr. Gephardt, who in Congress voted for the White House's $87 billion reconstruction request, defended his action as being supportive of the men and women in the U.S. military.
“I agree with the view that this President has failed us, and I'm very sorry about that. He hasn't gotten the international help we need.
“He hasn't gotten us the troops and the money that should have been there from the beginning,” he said.
Throughout the debate, Mr. Clark defended his military career and lack of experience in elected office.
“I'm in this campaign because this country is in one heck of a mess. It's in a mess in Iraq, it's in a mess at home, and it needs strong leadership,” he said.
“It was an unnecessary war. There was no imminent threat,” Mr. Clark said.
“He didn't use diplomacy. He didn't use leadership. He didn't bring the rest of the world with us. He should have.”
The candidates were questioned by Gwen Ifill, moderator and managing editor of PBS's Washington Week, Huel Perkins, anchor of Detroit's WJBK-Fox 2 news, and Carl Cameron, Fox News chief political correspondent.
During the debate the candidates focused on the need to replace the current administration.
“This is a test of leadership at an important moment in American history. The American people want leadership they can trust to do what's right for our country and have the courage to stick with it,” Mr. Lieberman said after calling his Democratic rivals “inconsistent” in some of their messages and actions.
“I'm the clear alternative to George Bush. I don't look like him. I don't think like him. I don't act like him,” said Ms. Braun, who like Mr. Sharpton is black.
The candidates criticized Mr. Bush's tax policy as favoring the richest Americans at the expense of the middle class.
“I think people are looking for someone they can identify with and someone who has been able to achieve an American dream,” said Mr. Kucinich, the former Cleveland mayor who at times during his youth lived with his family in cars instead of homes.
Mr. Edwards called for a renewed focus on education and said as president he would fight for better pay for teachers and economic incentives for them to work in underserved areas.
“The idea is to first bring jobs to urban America,” he said.
Standing at identical podiums arched across the theater's stage, the candidates hammered the Bush administration for a lack of direction and success of military operations in Iraq and reminded the audience of the unsuccessful search for Osama bin Laden.
“I think this administration has failed in the root causes of terrorism,” Mr. Lieberman said.
None of the nine Democratic candidates has yet pulled away from the pack in Michigan.
A recent EPIC-MRA poll of 400 likely Democratic voters found Mr. Dean had 21 percent support, Mr. Clark had 15 percent, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Gephardt each had 13 percent, and Mr. Lieberman had 12 percent. Mr. Sharpton, Ms. Braun, Mr. Kucinich, and Mr. Edwards each had 4 percent or less.
The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.