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Democrats join to condemn war

In San Diego for a party convention, presidential candidates blast Bush with some of their strongest language yet.

April 29, 2007|Mark Z. Barabak and Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writers

SAN DIEGO — Drawn by California's new prominence in the nominating process, a parade of Democratic White House hopefuls took turns Saturday skewering President Bush and vowing to end the war in Iraq, as they auditioned before hundreds of the party's most ardent activists.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York accused Bush of taking the country to war on trumped-up charges -- "something that will stand in American history as one of the darkest blots on leadership we've ever had."

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois brought state convention delegates to their feet by declaring it "time to turn the page" and pledging to "bring our troops home."

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut said the U.S. should not fund any further escalation, or "try to police a civil war" -- a sentiment echoed by Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio.

Even Sacramento lawmakers, reaching beyond their main responsibilities, joined in the daylong festival of Bush-bashing.

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi called it a "terrible, terrible presidency." Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown -- a three-time candidate for the White House -- criticized "the general craziness" of Bush's policies, and Treasurer Bill Lockyer, citing the financial burden of the war, called for turning "helmets into hard hats to rebuild California."

For all the pungent rhetoric, the gathering of party faithful was a largely celebratory affair, reflecting Democrats' ascendancy in Washington and the historic elevation of San Francisco's Nancy Pelosi as the first woman -- and first Californian -- to serve as speaker of the House. Even Phil Angelides, the gubernatorial nominee buried in a landslide in November, received a congenial welcome.

For more than 2,000 convention delegates, the weekend's highlight, apart from the postcard-perfect weather, was a chance to survey virtually the entire Democratic presidential field, a rarity in a state long treated as a source of campaign cash and little else. Attitudes have changed since California advanced its primary to Feb. 5, making the state the biggest prize in a day of coast-to-coast balloting. Two more candidates, former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, will speak today.

The four hopefuls who spoke Saturday largely avoided criticizing one other, though Obama and Dodd worked in a few jabs at rivals. For the most part, the candidates focused on a common foe, Bush, and played to the staunchly antiwar crowd with some of the harshest rhetoric of the presidential campaign.

Clinton, who spoke first, cited the upcoming fourth anniversary of Bush's appearance on an aircraft carrier off San Diego that bore a banner declaring "Mission Accomplished." She called it "one of the most shameful episodes in American history."

If elected president, Clinton said, "the first thing I will do upon taking office is to end the war in Iraq."

A few hecklers, upset at her refusal to apologize for her 2002 vote authorizing the war, taunted Clinton as she spoke. One demonstrator held up a sign saying, "Hillary, if you fund it, you own it." Clinton made no direct mention of her vote during her 30-minute speech.

For the most part, though, she was greeted warmly -- a contrast with the boos for several White House contenders at a convention four years ago, when they tried to defend their votes for war. One of them was Edwards, who has since apologized for his vote and called it a mistake.

Clinton also called for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration policy, including tougher border enforcement and a path to "earned citizenship" for the millions of people in the country illegally.

Speaking at a crowded news conference afterward, her voice raspy from use, Clinton said she would consider pushing a constitutional amendment to expand public financing of elections and stem the influence of money in the political system.

Obama, who is generally regarded as Clinton's toughest opponent, was also greeted warmly, though there were long periods of silence inside the darkened convention hall when he advocated greater bipartisanship and less animosity between Democrats and Republicans.

He took a veiled shot at Clinton and others by touting the fact that he opposed the war since the start.

"We've seen how a foreign policy based on bluster and bombast can lead us into a war that should've never been authorized and never been waged," he said.

Later, Obama took another jab by promising universal healthcare by the end of his first term -- emphasizing the word "first" -- in contrast with Clinton's vow to have a plan in place by the end of her second term as president.

Obama offered few specifics, however. Tending toward a low-key, conversational style, he largely stuck to the speech he has been delivering since announcing his candidacy in February.

The candidate who spoke with the most specificity Saturday was Dodd, who also has the longest congressional record. In addition to calling for a cutoff of war funding, he proposed a 50-mile-per-gallon mileage requirement for autos by 2017 and a "corporate carbon tax" as a way of cutting energy use.

He also took a poke at Obama, without mentioning him by name. "It's not only about hope," he said, alluding to one of Obama's signatures. (Obama wrote a book called "The Audacity of Hope.") "It's not only being able to raise the expectations of people in the country to feel good again about the country, but also to demonstrate the ability to bring people together so we can get the job done."

Delegates also heard Friday night from former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who is staking his hopes on a strong showing in early-voting South Carolina, skipped the convention to campaign in that state.


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