DES MOINES — Three likely 2004 Democratic presidential candidates differed over President Bush's policy in Iraq on Saturday night before an audience of influential grass-roots Democratic activists openly skeptical of a second war in the Persian Gulf.
At a fund-raising dinner for the Iowa Democratic Party, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean drew sustained applause with sharp questions about the move toward war with Iraq. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) has indicated he would support a congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq, but he alluded only briefly and obliquely to that view in his speech.
Iowa is a critical audience for the possible Democratic presidential contenders because its caucus in January 2004 will kick off the race for the party's nomination. Historically, the Democratic activists who participate in the Iowa caucuses have leaned toward dovish positions on national security issues--and that inclination was evident again Saturday night in the applause for the criticism from Kerry and Dean. Kerry repeatedly expressed skepticism about launching an American attack on Iraq without broad international support--though he never explicitly said that he would oppose a resolution authorizing Bush to invade when the Senate votes, probably this week.
"I am prepared to hold Saddam Hussein accountable and destroy his weapons of mass destruction," Kerry declared. "I would be willing to be the first to put my uniform back on and go defend this country. But I don't think we should pretend that protecting the security of our nation is defined by turning our back on a century of effort ... to build an international structure of law and to live by those standards." Kerry, citing his experience as a Vietnam veteran, was most impassioned in defending the right of critics to ask questions and dissent from Bush's policy.
"We need to understand that you have to ask those questions now, because you don't go to war as a matter of first resort; you go to war as a matter of last resort," he said. Dean, who is already actively seeking the nomination, said he feared that the nation "will engage in unwise conduct and send our children to die without having an adequate explanation from the president of the United States." And he argued that Bush has not fairly explained to the nation how long American troops may need to be stationed in Iraq after a war.
"The president has never said that if we go into Iraq we will be there for 10 years to build that democracy ... and the president must tell us that before we go," Dean said. He implied that the drive toward war was being fueled by concern over access to oil. "If we had a renewable energy policy in this country," he charged, "we would not be sending kids to die in Iraq." Edwards cited his support for Bush on Iraq only in passing--and muffled it in a charge that the administration was rolling back civil liberties at home. "It is right in my judgment to stand up to Saddam Hussein," Edwards said to notable silence. Then he drew applause when he added: "But it is wrong in the name of war, in the name of the war on terrorism, to let this administration take away our rights." Among the potential 2004 Democratic candidates, Dean has most directly opposed Bush's moves toward war in Iraq. Kerry and former Vice President Al Gore have pointedly questioned Bush's direction, while indicating they could support the use of force under some circumstances. Edwards, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) have said they will back Bush's push for congressional authorization to use force against Iraq.
The evening was a testament to the cross pressures facing the potential 2004 Democratic presidential candidates on Iraq. Though polls show the country overall would support military action against Hussein, Democratic partisans have been much more skeptical than other Americans. And in Iowa, which exemplifies the historic Midwestern suspicion of foreign entanglements, those sentiments are probably stronger than elsewhere. Because the state picks its presidential delegates through a caucus, where turnout is usually much lower than in a primary, well-organized anti-war and arms control groups have been able to exert significant influence in years when their issues are prominent. In 1984, for instance, the controversy over the nuclear freeze propelled George McGovern to a surprise third-place finish in the caucus.
"Given what a small number of Democrats go to the caucus, if the peace groups organize themselves on this issue--as they will--they can play a much larger role than people expect," said David W. Loebsack, a professor of political science at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. In the hallways before the dinner, the talk among the Democratic activists was overwhelmingly hostile toward the prospect of another war with Iraq.