> >Democrats take aim at Bush in debat

: Democrats take aim at Bush in debat

: Democrats take aim at Bush in debat.


In a mostly cordial televised debate, Democrats vying to replace President Bush brushed aside their own differences on Thursday and roundly condemned his handling of the economy, Iraq and immigration policies.

"This president is a miserable failure," said former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, repeating the line twice and blaming Bush for the loss of American jobs and prestige.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who achieved front-runner status after a summer surge in the polls and in fund raising, had expected to be a primary target of his rivals. But the contenders spent most of their time assailing the president's policies rather than each other.

They welcomed Bush's decision to finally seek U.N. help in stabilizing postwar Iraq, but argued that he should have done it earlier and suggested his delay has jeopardized U.S. relations around the world.

Now Bush must "go back to the very people he humiliated," said Dean, who by the luck of the draw got the first question at a televised debate among eight of the nine Democrats seeking the party's presidential nomination.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who had cast himself as the early front-runner, said that "the swagger of a president who says 'bring 'em on' does not bring our troops peace or safety." Added Gephardt: "We have a president who has broken up alliances that Democratic and Republican presidents have put together over 70 years."

The gathering at the University of New Mexico was broadcast live on public television with a Spanish translation available and will be aired Saturday on Univision, the nation's largest Spanish-language network, in a nod to the rising influence of Hispanic voters. New Mexico has a large Hispanic population -- about 42 percent -- and a Hispanic governor, Democrat Bill Richardson.

In his opening remarks, Richardson challenged "Hispanics across the country to mobilize and energize our communities for next year's election."

Among the issues put to the contenders were proposals to overhaul immigration laws, particularly to allow the estimated 3 million undocumented immigrants from Mexico to remain in the United States. Relaxing current law drew broad support from the Democratic rivals.

"This country is a melting pot, a fabric," Gephardt said.

"Immigration for me is not just another issue. It's me, it's my family," said Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, noting that his ancestors, like those of most Americans, had come from overseas.

"He (Bush) has used 9-11 as an excuse for not doing what he promised to do in reforming immigration laws," Lieberman added.

Hispanics, who number 38.8 million according to the latest census, represent about 7 percent of the voting population nationwide. In 2000, about 7.5 million Hispanics were registered to vote.

The candidates did air some differences on trade and on tax policies.

Gephardt, who counts organized labor as a crucial constituency, continued his attack on his rivals for supporting free-trade pacts.

The candidates sparred briefly over whether their respective positions on trade agreements would protect workers rights and environmental standards.

Several of the Democratic contenders advocate rolling back Bush tax cuts, but Lieberman said he disagreed "with Governor Dean and others" who advocate undoing the full Bush tax plan to pay for other priorities, including universal health care coverage. Gephardt has also called for such a repeal.

Lieberman said that only cuts benefiting upper-income taxpayers be repealed and suggested the health insurance plans advocated by Dean and Gephardt were too expensive.

"Why would we want to keep anything of the Bush tax plan?" asked Gephardt in response. "It's a miserable failure."

The candidates joined in criticizing Bush's tax cuts and suggested that his policies had help eliminate U.S. jobs.

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina also suggested that Bush's attempts to woo Hispanic voters was shallow.

"The president goes around the country speaking Spanish. The only Spanish he speaks when it comes to jobs is 'hasta la vista'," Edwards said, borrowing a line made famous by actor and California GOP gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Kerry noted pointedly that the stock market had risen sharply over the past month. "You know, it's interesting that the Standard & Poor's went up to 1,000, and the Dow went up to 9,400, which proves that good things happen when George Bush is on vacation, folks."

Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie belittled the Democratic forum. "They are a party divided," he said. "They have differing positions on everything from Iraq to tax cuts...The one thing they were unified on was their negativity and their attacks on the president."

The eight candidates -- the ninth, Al Sharpton was delayed in New York by poor weather and could not participate -- stood at individual podiums arranged in a semicircle on the stage. All eight wore dark suits; all the men but Dean wore red ties. He preferred blue.

Former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, the only woman candidate, reminded the audience that Osama bin Laden, architect of the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States, remained at large. "We haven't been looking for him because we got off on the wrong track (in Iraq)," she said.

Lieberman, who like Gephardt was an early supporter of the war with Iraq, said he would send more U.S. troops to help safeguard those there now and to help stabilize the country.

Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, the only senator seeking the nomination who voted against the Iraq war resolution last fall, said he voted that way because "I thought it was the wrong war against the wrong enemy."

Despite his consistent opposition to the war, Graham said he would support the administration's request for an estimated $60 billion to $70 billion to help cover continuing costs.

"We have an obligation to support those troops," Graham said.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who voted against the war resolution in the House, declared: "It is time to bring the troops home. It is time to bring the U.N. in and get the U.S. out."

The event was moderated by PBS correspondent Ray Suarez and Univision anchor Maria Elena Salinas.



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