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Democratic Hopefuls Rally Behind Bush

Presidential contenders declare support for the war effort, some despite pointed criticism earlier.

March 21, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The leading contenders for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination quickly lined up behind President Bush's decision to attack Iraq, with even former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean backing away from earlier plans to continue criticizing the war after the fighting began.

But the Democratic hopefuls are just beginning to grapple with the longer-term question of how to reformulate their broader critique of Bush's foreign policy in light of the war.

In rapid fire, all of the top contenders released statements Wednesday and Thursday backing Bush as he ordered the start of military action.

The most emphatic support came from Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina.

"This is a task of high justice, necessity and idealism in the best tradition of American principles and patriotism," Lieberman said.

Edwards seemed to subtly distance himself from Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who had charged Monday that the nation had been "forced to war" because Bush had "failed so miserably at diplomacy."

"Make no mistake," Edwards said, "Saddam Hussein alone has chosen war over peace. He has defied international law rather than disarm his weapons of mass destruction."

Daschle, who this year decided against seeking the 2004 presidential nomination, joined the chorus of support for Bush once the hostilities began.

"We may have had differences of opinion about what brought us to this point, but the president is the commander in chief, and today we unite behind him," he said.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, another consistent supporter of Bush on Iraq among the Democratic contenders, struck a slightly more equivocal note than Edwards and Lieberman.

"I wish that it didn't come to this; nobody wishes for war," Gephardt said. "But we must face the challenge of terrorism head on."

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has long appeared the most ambivalent about the war among the leading Democrats.

Although he voted last fall for the resolution authorizing Bush to use force, Kerry repeatedly urged the president to delay an attack in the hope of attracting wider international backing.

On Monday, after Bush announced he was abandoning efforts at a diplomatic solution, Kerry charged that the president had "botched the diplomacy" and "clumsily and arrogantly" alienated potential allies. But once the war began, Kerry issued a statement of strong support.

"For America now, the only exit strategy is victory," Kerry said Thursday. "This is our common mission and the world's cause."

Even Dean, the leading opponent of the war among the top-tier Democratic candidates, joined that chorus.

Dean's intense opposition to the war has jump-started his campaign, winning him loud applause at gatherings of Democratic activists from Sacramento to Washington.

On Monday, Dean had announced in New Hampshire that he would continue to denounce the war, even after it started.

But in a speech to a group of newspaper editors Thursday in Washington, Dean said: "When the troops are in the field, they are all our kids, they are all our grandchildren.... This is not the time to beat up the president on the war."

In an interview after the speech, Dean said he would continue to express his belief that the war was "a foreign policy blunder."

But he said he found that after his Monday speech, he felt "uncomfortable" offering his usual pointed critique of the war because he believed such criticism could be interpreted abroad as a lack of U.S. resolve.

In addition, now that Bush had committed the troops, Dean said, he believed the United States had to finish the mission to remove Hussein.

"We hope [the troops] come home as fast as they can," Dean said. "But now that we've started, we can't stop.... We certainly can't pull the troops out."

Dean did offer one partisan twist in his remarks.

Reacting to Republican attacks on Daschle's comments, Dean said that if Democrats are expected to shelve criticism of Bush's foreign policy during the war, the Republican majority in Congress should "not try to use the war as cover" for passing legislation that sharply divides the parties, such as the administration's proposed tax cuts.

The general Democratic endorsement of Bush's decision follows the tradition of rallying behind the commander in chief at the outset of hostilities.

But aides to several of the campaigns said that once the war concludes, they expect the Democrats to resume their broader indictment of Bush's foreign policy.

All of the leading contenders have converged around a charge that Bush has unnecessarily isolated the United States in the world and alienated traditional allies in ways that could endanger national security.

Republicans think it may be tougher to make that case if the war goes smoothly even after Bush was unable to win authorization for it from the United Nations, and some Democrats privately agree. But the Democratic campaigns insist that the critique would remain relevant, no matter what happens in Iraq.

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