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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

'No War,' State Democrats Chant

Vocal antiwar sentiments dominate the party's convention in Sacramento.

March 17, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — The doves took wing as California Democrats wrapped up their state convention Sunday, with activists cheering antiwar sentiments and booing the leading hawk in the party's presidential field, Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman.

Lieberman was not present; he addressed the gathering via prerecorded videotape. But that failed to quell the acrimony of delegates, who later passed a resolution formalizing the state party's antiwar stance. They jeered and booed the disembodied face of Lieberman, as he peered down impassively from two jumbo-size TV screens, a small bust of Abraham Lincoln over his left shoulder.

"I know that not everyone in our party, or in our country, sees eye to eye on this issue,'' Lieberman began. A chorus of boos and cries of "no war!" started rising in the half-filled hall, growing until finally Lieberman was all but drowned out as he promised to always do "what I believe is right and not what I believe is politically popular.''

The moment captured the strong emotions cascading through the Democratic Party as the nation verges on war, dividing not just its most loyal activists but also the field of nine candidates wishing to lead the fight against President Bush in 2004.

Some in the party fret over the tensions laid bare in Sacramento.

Though acknowledging that "there is a lot of ambivalence about the war,'' Democratic strategist Garry South warned against turning Iraq into a political litmus test.

"If the Democratic Party collectively leaves an impression on the public that our primary reason for being is opposing the war in Iraq, we're cooked,'' said South, who masterminded Gov. Gray Davis' two election campaigns. "We should not get so top-loaded on the issue of war that we forget there's a lot at stake on other issues too.''

Indeed, even antiwar candidates like the Rev. Al Sharpton, who appeared Saturday, and Sunday's two speakers -- former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich -- devoted a good portion of their remarks to assailing the president's domestic policies.

"George W. Bush has mismanaged this economy in ways that are neither compassionate nor conservative,'' said Braun, pointedly using the words with which Bush had defined himself in the 2000 campaign. "To have transformed a budget surplus into a $300-billion deficit in two years gives conservatives a bad name. To give tax cuts to the richest Americans while passing along a ballooning deficit to our children is the opposite of compassionate.''

Kucinich called for a system of universal health care that would "rescue'' Americans from "a cruel system which exists only for profit and not for people.''

But the politics of war hung over the gathering almost as visibly as the storm clouds that pelted the state capital all weekend with intermittent rain.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards was booed Saturday -- in person -- for endorsing military action against Saddam Hussein. Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who also voted in Congress to back war with Iraq, was heckled when he spoke at a chips-and-guacamole reception Friday night. He and Edwards were criticized, in turn, by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who drew the most rousing response of the weekend with Saturday's fist-shaking denunciation of Bush's "unilateral war.'' (Two other presidential hopefuls were absent this weekend. Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt supported the congressional war resolution; Florida Sen. Bob Graham was opposed.)

After Dean's speech, his display stand outside the convention hall was mobbed with activists signing up to help his campaign. "He sounded like a real Democrat,'' said Nancy Dion, 69, a retired occupational therapist from Rancho Mirage, who was leaning toward Dean because of his antiwar position. "I'm against bombing innocent people.''

The reception Sunday for Moseley Braun and Kucinich was nearly as enthusiastic, though dampened because only a few hundred of the about 2,000 convention delegates were still in their seats by the time they spoke.

Kucinich briefly silenced the hall -- and had many shifting awkwardly in their seats -- by starting his speech with an a cappella medley of patriotic songs. He then launched into a full-throated attack on the administration, questioning its priorities.

"Joblessness is a weapon of mass destruction,'' he shouted. "Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction ....We have weapons of mass destruction we must eliminate at home, Mr. President. Stop this war! Stop this war! Stop this war before it starts!''

The audience rose to its feet, taking up the chant, "Stop this war!'' It resumed moments later when Moseley Braun declared, "We are on the brink of a war, not of necessity, but of choice.''

"We are the patriots,'' she said of antiwar activists. "Invading Iraq may benefit the energy conglomerates and defense contractors, but for ordinary Americans, there are no benefits -- only costs.''

The delegates seconded those sentiments a short time later, approving a resolution condemning the "rush to war.''

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