Democrats shore up campaigns heading into final weekend

Friday, January 23rd 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) _ Democratic presidential candidates turned again to core issues Friday as they swept across the state with the nation's leadoff primary looming in just four days.

John Kerry promoted health care and sought the backing of veterans while Joe Lieberman defended his support of the war with Iraq. Meanwhile, Howard Dean promoted his credentials as a chief executive outside of Washington and criticized President Bush's tax cuts.

``You want health care? You've just got to vote,'' Kerry urged patrons of a diner in Derry, N.H. ``I'm not leaving here until you tell me you're going to vote.''

Lieberman told supporters Bush didn't need to claim Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction to justify going to war with Iraq.

``I think the president put too much emphasis on weapons of mass destruction because the case against Saddam was enough,'' Lieberman said. ``Saddam was a weapon of mass destruction.''

The seven major Democratic candidates used a nationally televised debate Thursday night to appeal for support from New Hampshire voters and to answer lingering doubts about their electability. Avoiding the infighting that marked other debates, they reserved most of their criticism for Bush.

Dean, his voice raspy and his campaign still stumbling from a drubbing in the Iowa caucuses, sought to reclaim his insurgent message.

``If we're willing to say anything we have to say to get elected, then we're going to lose,'' Dean said Thursday night. ``We have to say what we believe, whether it's popular or not.''

Kerry, winner of the first test in Iowa and widening the gap on Dean and the other candidates in New Hampshire polls, looked at times like he was trying to debate Bush and not his Democratic rivals.

``The president is talking about a very different world than every one of us,'' the Massachusetts senator said. ``I will put America back to work.''

The two-hour debate largely lacked the fire and sniping of earlier encounters in a race that's been jumbled in its opening week. Much of the attention was on Dean, who has been forced to explain a raucous speech he gave after finishing third in Iowa's leadoff caucuses.

``I'm not a perfect person,'' he said. ``A lot of people have had fun with my Iowa hollers.''

Virtually all of the contenders sought to make the case they offer the best chance for Democrats to oust Bush, an issue that polls have shown is high on the list of concerns for Democratic activists.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards argued that Democrats can no longer afford to cede the South to Republicans, and argued that his Southern twang was key to victory in that region.

``I grew up in the rural South,'' Edwards said. ``I know inside what people care about.''

Lieberman, bragging that he's the Democrat Republicans most fear, vigorously defended his backing for the war in Iraq, conceding it had cost him in some Democratic circles.

``When it comes to our troops in battle, I will never say no, period,'' the Connecticut senator said. ``We owe them or lives and our liberties, and they deserve our unwavering support.''

Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, back in the mix after skipping the Iowa contest, made the case that Democrats no longer can afford to cede ``family values'' as an issue to Republicans, and sought to dispel worries that he's a newcomer to the Democratic banner.

``I'm in this party now and I bring a lot of other people to the party,'' he said. ``That's what we need to win in November.''

The Democrats charged that Bush's policies have shortchanged the middle class and burdened troops called up by the thousands for overseas duty.

The debate was closely watched because the dynamics of the Democratic contest shifted sharply this week when Kerry won Iowa's leadoff test, and one-time front-runner Dean finished third. That showing, coupled with a concession speech that's become fodder for late-night talk shows and Internet pundits, has put the spotlight on Dean's effort to recover.

His campaign was hoping for a strong debate showing to begin putting the speech behind him in the closing days of the New Hampshire campaign. In a debate that largely featured reprises of campaign stump speeches, some didn't see such a breakthrough.

``Nobody stood out. Nobody faltered,'' said Donna Brazile, who helped run the Democrats' 2000 campaign. ``He (Dean) still hasn't regained his footing.''

``He is in a bad box,'' Democratic strategist Dane Strother said.

The mild tenor of the debate reflected lessons the rivals may have learned from earlier tests. Dean and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri exchanged spirited gibes in the Iowa campaign, but finished third and fourth, respectively. That rocked Dean's campaign and forced Gephardt from the race.

Several of the contenders passed up opportunities to criticize one another _ chances they might have leapt at in earlier encounters.

``This is a time to be affirmative. I'd say nice try,'' Lieberman told one questioner who had invited him to make a critical comparison with other Democrats on the stage.

Brit Hume of Fox News Channel and Peter Jennings of ABC News participated as moderators and questioners, along with John DiStaso, senior political reporter for The Union Leader of Manchester, and Tom Griffith, anchor at WMUR-TV. All four news organizations sponsored the event.