For the most part, the Democratic presidential candidates who gathered here Thursday night ignored each other. Instead, all eight present (bad weather apparently grounded Rev. Al Sharpton) were united in shrill condemnation of George W. Bush, and spent most of the evening trying to top each other in their expressions of anger toward the president.
Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt led the pack by repeatedly, and with revivalist fervor, referring to Bush, his actions and policies as a "miserable failure." Still, Gephardt, like others who previously supported war in Iraq, struggled to defend his past positions while sustaining his fury toward the president. In response to questioning about U.S. military presence in Iraq, for example, Gephardt stated the U.S. couldn't just "cut and run," while at the same time stating, "It is inconceivable to me that we would end up in this situation." Indeed, all the candidates -- even those who supported going to war -- now appear to have trouble conceiving that Bush didn't have a fully formed plan for reconstruction of Iraq, despite the fact that he never stated one. Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, though calling for more U.S. troops and reiterating his belief that the "world is safer" now, added that he "didn't support war against Saddam Hussein so that we could control Iraq. I supported it to get rid of Saddam so that the Iraqi people could control Iraq." Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina also restated his support of the war effort, but added that the White House needed to tell the public what it was going to cost and how long it was going to take.
Both former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry said no more U.S. troops should be sent to the Middle East, but that international forces should be deployed. Dean added that those troops should include those of our Arab allies. Dean's attempts to clarify his position on Iraq included later issuing a written statement that "the present mission is putting far too great a burden on the men and women of our armed forces" and proposed rotating the National Guard and reserve forces out of Iraq and back to the U.S. as well as ensuring in the future that "the rotation of our forces is once again reduced to six months."
Other candidates had simpler assessments. Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, unsurprisingly, simply said it was "time to bring troops home." Florida Sen. Bob Graham characterized Iraq as "the wrong war against the wrong enemy." Both Graham and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun questioned what had happened to the search for Osama bin Laden.
If the candidates' dismay and disgust over Iraq was passionate, they were less convincing with their attempts to acknowledge the debate's targeted audience: Hispanic voters. The debate was co-sponsored by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, recently named permanent chair of the 2004 National Convention. After taking office in January, Richardson successfully lobbied to change New Mexico's closed June primary for major parties to an earlier, and much more important, February caucus, following the January Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. This change, along with Richardson's national stature as one of the more successful survivors of Clinton's Cabinet, was one of the factors that led to the staging of the first debate in the state. The second is the significant number of Hispanic people -- 42.1 percent -- in New Mexico, and that population's growing influence nationwide.
Edwards, when speaking of Bush and the economy, said, "The only Spanish he speaks when it comes to jobs is 'Hasta la vista,'" and Lieberman, when emoting on immigrants, referred to his own family as "mi familia."
Dean opened his remarks on healthcare in Spanish, and then ticked off in a staccato speech a number of talking points geared to his audience; that he was against racial profiling, that it was absurd for 9/11 to have affected immigration policies the way it had, that "not one of the 19 hijackers" was from Latin America (a remark that earned tepid and possibly confused applause), and that he was "tired of being divided" by race, gender and sexual orientation.
Dean did, in fact, appear tired, with little of the energy, humor and warmth he displayed in a packed rally in the University of New Mexico student union following the debate. Although a Kerry vs. Dean spar had been anticipated prior to the debate by reporters and organizers from both campaigns, neither candidate displayed much mojo while the cameras rolled. Dean seemed distant, in a Kerry-like way, while Kerry seemed in search of the perfect sound bite (even calling the Bush White House the "most anti-science administration in history").
The candidates saved most of their antagonism for the spin room where, during and after the debate, they issued written attacks on one another. Kerry's campaign issued a statement that simply quoted Dean's assertion during the debate that U.S. troops needed to return home and then reprinted, without comment, Dean's June 22 statement on "Meet the Press" that "We need more troops in Afghanistan. We need more troops in Iraq now."
The topic that sparked the most hostile attack -- on Dean, from Lieberman -- was trade. Lieberman voraciously pounced on Dean's proposal to require any countries the U.S. trades with to adapt U.S. standards, saying this would squash trade with Mexico -- and most trading partners -- and essentially topple the economy. "The Bush recession would be followed by the Dean depression," Lieberman said.
Dean argued that he supported international, not U.S., labor and environmental standards, prompting Lieberman to reference a Washington Post story in which Dean said otherwise. Kucinich also got in a shot at Dean for touting Vermont's healthcare program as proof that it is fiscally feasible to give health insurance to all Americans. "Vermont doesn't have a military," Kucinich retorted. Yet neither crack on Dean really went anywhere. And in the end, the fact that Dean was encountering these side attacks only suggested that he still appears to be the man to beat.