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Democrats Gather for a Debate in Deep South

Nine contenders for the presidential nomination assemble tonight in South Carolina in a bid to form opinions and capture voter interest.

May 03, 2003|James Gerstenzang and Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A presidential race that has been taking place well out of public view because of the war with Iraq begins a new phase tonight, as the nine contenders for the Democratic nomination assemble in South Carolina for a 90-minute debate.

The forum -- moderated by George Stephanopoulos, host of the ABC News program "This Week" and a onetime senior aide to former President Clinton -- looms as a potentially early act in a political show leading up to the first voting contests in January.

The candidates -- four U.S. senators, two House members, a former senator, a former governor and a community activist-pastor -- are likely to focus on three goals: challenging each other directly, laying out their main campaign themes and striving to present themselves as presidential timber.

Some Democratic activists see the debate as especially well-timed.

"You can tell the national consciousness is starting to swing away from the war," said Dick Harpootlian, the South Carolina Democratic Party chairman. His evidence? The media attention paid to a California homicide.

"The whole feeding frenzy over Scott Peterson [charged with killing his wife, Laci, and their unborn child] shows people are looking for something else to focus on," he said.

At the least, said Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist who has been neutral in the race, her party's would-be nominees are "beginning to position themselves against each other."

As this process accelerates, President Bush can be expected to present himself as above the fray while hammering at the twin themes that have marked his recent speeches, including one Friday in Santa Clara, Calif. -- his record on national security and his efforts to improve the economy.

The Democratic candidates are: Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina, Bob Graham of Florida, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut; Reps. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio; former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois; former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York.

Tonight's debate is designed to have a more freewheeling structure than usual for such events. In one segment the candidates will be allowed to question each other, and in another they can jump in to respond during a round-table discussion.

The setting -- in Columbia, the capital of South Carolina -- is also significant because the state has been given new prominence in the Democratic nominating process. Its primary is scheduled for Feb. 3, making it the first Deep South state to choose delegates for the party's national convention.

The South Carolina vote comes soon after the Iowa caucus on Jan. 19, and the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27. Those are states where more-liberal voters generally hold sway. The South Carolina primary could provide an opportunity for more-conservative Democrats to exert major influence on the winnowing of candidates.

Impressions of the candidates among the party activists -- those likely to make up the debate audience at the Drayton Hall Theater on the campus of the University of South Carolina -- are seen by many campaign aides as largely unformed. So the debate is considered an important chance to form opinions that could help shape later aspects of the campaign.

"First impressions always count for a lot," said Kerry strategist Chris Lehane.

Some party leaders say the debate should help Democrats start to gauge which candidate could mount the strongest challenge to Bush.

"I'm interested in which of these nine people cannot just articulate the issues, but display the kind of passion.... that our voters want to see in us," said Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.)."This will be the first opportunity to demonstrate they have appeal beyond their own parochial ... and ethnic supporters."

Each candidate has begun to try to establish distinguishing characteristics.

Kerry has sought to capitalize on his medal-winning service in the Vietnam War -- where he served in a Navy unit in the Mekong Delta -- to establish in voters' minds his competence on national security issues. That could be a key in running against Bush's record as a wartime leader.

Dean, a strong critic of Bush's policy toward Iraq, has received warm receptions from Democrats who opposed the war.

The early support Kerry and Dean have attracted is likely to make them targets tonight.

Edwards, an attorney before winning his Senate seat in 1998, raised more money than any of the candidates during the first three months of this year, with many of the contributions coming from trial lawyers. Lieberman, who was Al Gore's vice presidential running mate in 2000, is seeking to appeal to party centrists.

Gephardt has set out a detailed health-care proposal that aims to provide coverage for nearly all Americans -- an issue dear to many Democrats. Graham, who was governor of Florida for eight years and is now serving his third Senate term, has touted himself as the most experienced candidate.

Braun, Sharpton and Kucinich are liberal underdogs in the race who are seeking to present themselves as realistic alternatives to the more prominent candidates.

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Gerstenzang reported from Washington, Barabak from San Francisco.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Where to See, Hear the Debate

The 90-minute debate among the nine Democratic candidates is scheduled to begin at 6 tonight. Although the debate will not be shown live, here is a list of broadcast plans:

* 8:35 p.m. on ABC News Radio.

* 8:35 p.m. on ABC News Live, an Internet broadband news service available to subscribers of RealOne, AOL Broadband and Yahoo Platinum.

* 2:05 a.m. Sunday on KABC-TV in Los Angeles, after late local news broadcasts.

* Excerpts at 8 a.m. Sunday on ABC's "This Week."

* Sunday at 10 a.m., 3:30 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on C-SPAN.

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