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War, Davis' Woes Color Meeting

Democrats' state convention exposes strong disagreement over Iraq, even as delegates seek unity against President Bush.

March 16, 2003|Michael Finnegan and Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — The looming war in Iraq and the political travails of Gov. Gray Davis exposed tensions among Democrats on Saturday as a gathering of party loyalists strove to show unity against President Bush.

Disagreement over the potential war dominated the attention of nearly 2,000 Democrats at the annual state party convention. Presidential candidate John Edwards, one of six such contenders scheduled to speak during the weekend convention, was booed for backing military action, while rival Howard Dean whipped up a cheering frenzy with antiwar remarks.

Dean, a former Vermont governor, used the forum to step up criticism of Edwards, a North Carolina senator, and other White House hopefuls who voted in Congress to authorize military force against Iraq. Dean cited Edwards and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry by name.

"I don't think we can win the White House if we vote for the president's unilateral attack on Iraq and then come to California and say we're against the war," shouted Dean, who pledged nonetheless to support Edwards or Kerry if either wins the nomination.

Dean also took on Kerry and Edwards for their absence last week when the Senate approved a ban on a controversial abortion procedure. Democrats cannot "win the White House if we skip the most important abortion vote in the last year and then come to California" and proclaim support for abortion rights, Dean said.

His remarks were a striking departure from the candidates' general practice of muting criticism of one another -- at least at this early stage of the race.

Edwards and Kerry, for their part, faced a tough challenge in explaining their more hawkish stands on Iraq to a boisterous crowd of party activists staunchly opposed to war. Edwards tucked a few lines on Iraq into the final section of a 15-minute speech. A rumble of boos, groans and hisses filled the convention hall.

"I believe that Saddam Hussein is a serious threat and that he must be disarmed, including with military force if necessary," he said. A "No war!" chant erupted as he called for rebuilding a "post-Saddam Iraq," and then Edwards shifted quickly to the friendlier terrain of civil rights.

In comments later to reporters, Edwards said it was a matter of character and leadership for a presidential candidate "to be willing to say directly to the faces of people who disagree with you what it is you believe."

Edwards said that, contrary to Dean's accusations, his views on Iraq had been consistent.

Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, faced less hostility as he outlined his views on Iraq to delegates Friday night.

"I know what it is like to fight in a war when you lose legitimacy and consent," Kerry said. "And I believe the United States should never go to war without that legitimacy, without that consent."

After a key applause line in Kerry's stump speech -- "The United States of America should never go to war because it wants to; we should go to war because we have to" -- a person in the crowd shouted: "Then why did you vote for it?"

The other presidential hopeful to address delegates Saturday was the Rev. Al Sharpton; he, like Dean, joined the antiwar chorus.

"Make no mistake about it: War is wrong!" Sharpton hollered. "This war is unnecessary. This is not about not supporting the troops. This is about misusing troops."

He brought the crowd to its feet by suggesting that Bush was trying to divert Americans' attention from the sagging economy, health-care problems and other domestic issues the way an adult would distract a child by repeating: "The boogeyman's coming."

Outside the convention hall, a few hundred demonstrators banged drums and chanted antiwar slogans. Inside, many delegates wore neon-green lapel stickers that read: "Democrats Say No War."

Bush's policies were the main target of nearly every speaker. Democrats accused him of harming the environment and offering tax breaks to rich Americans who don't need them.

"This president is a failure for the great middle class of America," said Edwards, who referred to the Bush administration as "government of the insiders, by the insiders, for the insiders."

But antiwar lines were the biggest crowd pleasers. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who has made "California values" a theme of her reelection campaign, opened her speech by saying: "Peace is a California value."

"We expect our leaders to always lead the path to peace, and when they say war is a last resort, we expect them to mean it," said Boxer, who voted against giving Bush the authority to wage war.

Apart from the war, the other source of discord among Democrats at the convention was Davis. The governor was once viewed as a potential presidential contender, but now he suffers from dismal poll ratings and faces a campaign to recall him from office.

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