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The Nation | NEWS ANALYSIS

Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Mired in Disagreements Over War

Howard Dean benefits most from the debate. His rivals increasingly oppose Bush's Iraq policy even as they try to play up other issues.

October 28, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The war over the war in Iraq continues to dominate the Democratic presidential race, strengthening the dynamic that has catapulted former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean from obscurity to the head of the field.

Arguments about the war and its aftermath once again ignited the hottest confrontations at Sunday's Democratic debate in Detroit -- just as the dispute has commanded center stage in almost all of the earlier encounters among the White House contenders.

The relentless focus on Iraq, many analysts agree, has benefited Dean by sustaining a spotlight on the issue at the core of his candidacy. And even initial supporters of the war, such as Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, are being tugged in Dean's direction as they express greater skepticism about President Bush's policy in Iraq.

"The drift has been to accommodate what the other candidates think are the positions that helped Dean prosper," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.

Just as important, the continued prominence of Iraq is making it tougher for Dean's rivals to focus attention on other issues that might cause problems for him and undercut his support.

That looms as a particular challenge for Kerry and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. Both men, on the defensive over their votes for the congressional resolution that authorized the war, are now trying to target Dean over statements suggesting he might support cuts in Medicare.

Kerry jabbed Dean on that issue Sunday -- but the exchange was almost completely obscured by the crossfire about the war.

"It seems to me we go over the same ground again and again," complained Steve Elmendorf, a senior advisor to Gephardt.

Partly, Iraq has received such a disproportionate share of attention at the debates because media questioners have focused on it.

But aides in several campaigns acknowledge that the candidates have also stressed the issue because it appears to affect voters more than any other issue.

"Iraq is just so head and shoulders above everything else as a cutting issue," said a senior aide to one of the Democrats who supported the war.

At Sunday's debate, Dean accused Kerry of defending "the president's war"; Kerry fired back by questioning Dean's command of foreign policy.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a war supporter, accused Kerry and Edwards of inconsistency for voting for the war resolution last year but opposing Bush's recent request for $87 billion that would be spent mostly to secure and reconstruct Iraq. Edwards suggested that by voting for the $87 billion, Lieberman gave Bush a "blank check" on the war.

Lieberman also went after another rival, charging that retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark took "six different positions on whether going to war was the right idea."

As striking as the focus on the war was the tone of the discussion. The debate underscored the steady shift in the Democratic field this year toward Dean's skepticism about the war.

Although Lieberman remained unqualified in his support, even Gephardt justified his vote for the $87-billion aid request with a comment that seemed more defensive than confident. "I can't find it within myself to not vote for the money [to] support the troops," he said.

Clark, who expressed more nuanced positions in the period before and during the conflict itself, on Sunday presented himself as an unalloyed opponent of the war from the outset. "I've been against this war from the beginning," he declared. "I was against it last summer. I was against it in the fall. I was against it in the winter. I was against it in the spring. And I'm against it now."

Such sentiments may reflect the widespread belief among Democrats that Bush mishandled both the war and its aftermath by failing to build more support among allies abroad. And it may also reflect the polls showing strong opposition among Democratic voters both to the war itself and to the $87-billion aid request.

"The candidates, because they are out in the world and are talking to people, are hearing that there is grave concern, so naturally they are talking about it," says Wes Boyd, the cofounder of MoveOn.org, a liberal, Internet-based advocacy group.

The tenor of this discussion worries party centrists such as Marshall, who fear that the widening hostility toward Bush's Iraq policy among the candidates will hurt Democrats in the general election. "The effect is to show the Democratic mind in disarray on national security," he said.

The more immediate problem for the Democrats trying to derail Dean is that the continuing focus on Iraq keeps the campaign centered on the issue that has provided the foundation of his strength.

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