ALBUQUERQUE — Eight of the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls ganged up on President Bush on Thursday night, lashing at his policies on issues ranging from jobs to Iraq while generally steering clear of attacks on each other.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who has surged to front-runner status in the race, came away from the 90-minute debate largely unscathed, as rivals mentioned their differences mostly in passing. The forum's format did not give each candidate the chance to answer every question, which also made it more difficult to draw contrasts or confront one another.
One of the few sharp exchanges came roughly midway through the question-and-answer session, which took place at the University of New Mexico. At issue was trade.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said Dean's recent statements in a Washington Post article that U.S. trading partners should meet tough American standards on working conditions and environmental protections "would cost us millions of jobs."
"I would say the Bush recession would be followed by the Dean depression," Lieberman said, drawing a roar from supporters.
Dean, who has come under criticism for altering some of his stances as his support has grown, responded that he believed trade partners should meet international standards, not necessarily the tougher U.S. requirements.
"That's a reassuring change of position," Lieberman shot back.
The debate, broadcast live on public television, brought together all but one of the candidates for the Democratic nomination. The Rev. Al Sharpton missed the debate when bad weather in New York thwarted his travel plans.
While the candidates have shared the stage several times before, the forum came at a particularly significant point in the Democratic race -- it was the first such event since Dean emerged as the pacesetter in fund-raising and the leader in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, sites of the crucial early contests in the nominating process.
These developments had raised expectations that many of Dean's rivals would target him for criticism, but that did not occur.
During the debate, several of the questions were posed in both English and Spanish, and a handful of the candidates -- Dean, Lieberman and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio -- sprinkled in a few Spanish phrases of their own, with varying success.
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina drew one of the night's biggest laughs when he mocked Bush's habit of speaking Spanish to Latino audiences around the country. "The only Spanish he speaks when it comes to jobs is 'Hasta la vista.' " Edwards said, using a phrase associated with actor and California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger. Edwards cracked himself up; even Dean grew a bit red-faced from laughing.
Bush came under frequent and withering attack, starting with his foreign policy, which has long figured to be his strongest suit in seeking reelection. Fully a third of the debate was devoted to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the turbulent postwar rebuilding effort there.
The war has deeply divided the Democratic field. Dean's relentless criticism of the war was key to propelling him to the front of the pack, ahead of Edwards, Lieberman, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, all of whom voted in Congress to support the use of force against Iraq.
Dean on Thursday mentioned his opposition to the war, but just in passing. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida noted his vote against last fall's resolution authorizing the war, as did Kucinich, who called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
For the most part, though, the candidates found a consensus in bashing Bush, saying the administration should have worked more closely with other countries long before it announced this week that it wanted more help from the United Nations in trying to stabilize Iraq.
Bush "has to go back to the very people he humiliated, our allies, on the way into Iraq," Dean said.
"The president has failed to lead," Gephardt said. "He's a miserable failure on this issue, and he must be replaced in this election."
Kerry took issue with Lieberman's suggestion that more U.S. troops should be deployed in Iraq to try to calm the increasingly volatile situation.
"I disagree with Joe Lieberman," Kerry said in one of the rare occasions when a candidate uttered another's name. "We should not send more troops. We do not want a greater sense of American occupation. We should minimize that."
The candidates found mostly common ground on the economy, with Graham, Kucinich and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois all calling for more spending on infrastructure -- roads, schools and the like -- as a means of creating jobs. They did not detail how they would pay for that added spending.
The candidates have taken different positions in the past on the extensive tax cuts Bush pushed into law. Gephardt and Dean would seek to repeal all of them.