The Democrats' civil union

After Iowa's wild ride, a subdued panel of candidates focus on President Bush in a final push before New Hampshire.

By Josh Benson

Published January 23, 2004 3:27PM (EST)

Perhaps having learned from Iowa that nasty doesn't play with many voters, the Democratic candidates here Thursday night steered clear of attacking each other and instead criticized President Bush, in a debate that was a vision of harmony.

John Kerry, who has collected several key newspaper endorsements and a lead in the polls here since winning in Iowa, positioned himself as the most qualified to face Bush. Asked if he'd be vulnerable to the label of "Massachusetts liberal" in a general election battle, Kerry said: "I look forward to that fight, and I particularly want to have that debate with this president."

Howard Dean, fighting to stay close to Kerry in the polls after his third-place finish in Iowa, made light of his much-discussed Iowa concession speech, and stressed his record as a budget-balancing governor of Vermont.

Asked about one of his comments earlier in the day about what he called "the Iowa screech," Dean defended his unpolished style: "What I say, what we say in my campaign, when we say we want our country back, we want our country back for all of us," he said. "And you have to get out there and lead with your heart and lay it all out for the American people, because that doesn't happen very often in Washington, D.C."

Dean, along with his wife, Judy, also did an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer that aired immediately after the debate as part of a quick brush-up of his image before the primary.

Wesley Clark, who now trails Kerry and Dean in some polls, spent much of his time responding to questions about his Democratic qualifications, and about comments he made about the preventability of the 9/11 attacks. Speaking about the party that he officially joined shortly before declaring himself a presidential candidate, he said, "When I got out of the military, I looked at both parties. I'm pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-environment, pro-labor. I was either going to be the loneliest Republican in America or I was going to be a happy Democrat."

With no pressure from other candidates at the forum (sponsored by WMUR-TV, the Manchester Union Leader newspaper, ABC-TV and Fox), none of the candidates committed any serious mistakes, and the debate probably didn't do much to realign the field too radically. Not that that makes the outcome of next Tuesday's vote -- or the nomination battle -- any easier to predict.

Kerry seems particularly well positioned to win in New Hampshire.

But for every political expert who'll tell you that Kerry can lock it up by winning a second consecutive contest, another will insist that his campaign will get stuck the following week -- on Feb. 3, there will be seven contests in states where he has been weaker. And the instantly developed conventional wisdom that Dean is "done" may or may not turn out to be true. Many of the people who are now saying that are the same ones who were calling him "unstoppable" just a week before Iowa.

It also unclear if Clark can hold on to the support he built up over the past few weeks here, or if Edwards, who has built his campaign on a message of positivity and optimism, can vault to another surprise showing after placing second in Iowa.

Further complicating the picture is the inherent weirdness of the Democratic primary in New Hampshire, which is particularly difficult to predict because of the large number of independent voters who are likely to participate this year.

Hence the strenuous efforts of some of the candidates to demonstrate an appeal to those independents by stressing their centrist credentials. Edwards, asked about his position on gun control, noted that he had beaten the "Jesse Helms political machine" in North Carolina and said, "I grew up in the rural South. I know deep inside what people care about. From the time I was growing up, everyone around me hunted, everyone had guns. I respect and believe in people's Second Amendment rights."

Dean answered a question about how he would answer the inevitable charges from the Bush campaign that he is too liberal. He noted his balanced budgets in Vermont -- "I'm much more conservative with money than George Bush is," he said -- and also noted that he "probably [doesn't] have as pro-gun-control a position as some other folks in the Democratic Party."

Kerry answered a similar question by noting that he had been, among other things, a war veteran and a prosecutor who "sent people to jail for the rest of their life." And, with shades of Dean and Edwards, he said, "I am a gun owner and a hunter since I was a young man. [And] I think that my education reform -- the other significant efforts to try to make the workplace fair in America are as vital to people in the South and the Southwest and the West and the Midwest of this country as anywhere else."

Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton, who have done better in debates than in the campaign as a whole, also participated.

And Joe Lieberman, who has shown little sign of catching on in New Hampshire despite skipping Iowa to move here ahead of the primary, managed to turn a question about a bill he once introduced that would have weakened New Hampshire's "first in the nation" primary status into a massive applause line: "I will pledge to the death," he said, "to defend the New Hampshire primary, so help me God."

Josh Benson

Josh Benson is Salon's national correspondent.

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2004 Elections Howard Dean