Six Democratic hopefuls make pitch in Oklahoma

Tuesday, August 12th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) _ Democratic presidential hopefuls brought their pitches and their criticism of the Bush administration Tuesday to a state virtually ignored in past races.

Six of the nine candidates traveled to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater where they spoke in a forum on health care, the economy and how they would have handled the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks.

The News on 6 taped the forum, and will broadcast it next Wednesday, August 20th at 7 PM.

``I say this is the time for the United States to admit it made a mistake in attacking Iraq,'' said Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who favors re-engaging the United Nations and the world community. ``My plan is to get the UN in and get the U.S. out.''

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman separated himself from other speakers on the issue by saying some of his opponents ``run the risk of sending a message that they don't know a just war when they see one.''

Lieberman drew some boos for that remark and responded by saying that was proof he would be a strong president who would do what is right for America.

Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt's criticism of Bush's economic policies drew loud applause. He said he worked with President Clinton to produce an economy that created 22 million jobs and turned a huge national deficit into a huge surplus ``and in 24 months this president has messed it all up.''

Gephardt also said Bush had trouble working with other world leaders and that was complicating the rebuilding of Iraq.

He said he thought Bush ``got an F'' on his grade school report card under the notation: ``works well with others.''

Former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun said Bush's approach has ``frittered away all the good will we had'' and said she wants U.S. troops out of Iraq.

But ``we have a moral obligation to at least put that country back in shape,'' she said. ``We can't just leave, having blown them up.''

Asked about gay marriages, Moseley Braun recalled an aunt in an interracial marriage decades ago and brought applause when she said, ``I don't see any difference between interracial marriages and same sex marriages.''

Lieberman drew a mix of boos and applause when he said he opposed same-sex marriages.

``Just trust me to say what I believe is right for our country,'' Lieberman said.

``These Oklahomans and people all over America should vote for me because I am an independent-minded Democrat,'' he said. ``I am the one Democrat who can take Bush on where he's supposed to be strong _ security and mainstream values.''

He said he could also take on the ``right-wing agenda'' that he called Bush's weakness.

Candidate after candidate challenged Bush's handling of the economy, citing recently announced job cuts at a Wrangler plant in Seminole.

On the economy, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean described Bush's tax cuts as perks for his wealthy corporate friends.

``I wouldn't have cut taxes, period,'' Dean said. ``Most people would gladly pay the same taxes they paid when Bill Clinton was president if only they could have the same economy (they had) when Bill Clinton was president.''

He also said corporations can no longer be trusted to run their own pensions and that an independent pension could travel with a worker who changes jobs.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said his small town roots and values were needed in the White House. ``I still believe in an America where the son of a mill worker can beat the son of a president,'' he said.

He said Bush had failed in foreign policy by not cultivating allies. A president, Edwards said, should ``lead in a way that generates respect for America.''

Edwards was asked if the Bush tax cuts had spurred the economy. He suggested that the president ``come to the Wrangler plant here in Oklahoma and explain to the people who are about to lose their jobs that he sparked the economy.''

The forum drew 5,600 people, so many the start had to be delayed when the line waiting to enter stretched out the doors and down the street.

Candidates were allowed to respond separately to questions, including those from audience members selected before the forum. Not all candidates were asked the same questions.

Oklahoma has not voted for a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Oklahoma has been ignored by primary presidential candidates in recent elections, prompting the Legislature to move the 2004 election to Feb. 3, one week after the New Hampshire primary, the nation's first.

Oklahoma had been lumped with several mostly southern states in a mid-March primary that happened after the Democratic nomination was all but sewed up.

This year, Oklahoma is one of seven states planning primaries or caucuses Feb. 3. The others are Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, South Carolina, New Mexico and North Dakota.

``This is exactly what we had in mind,'' said Jay Parmley, state Democratic Party chairman standing in the middle of a crowd that waved signs and sported T-shirts for various candidates before the event. ``In fact, this has exceeded expectations.''

Two candidates, Florida Sen. Bob Graham and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, were not taking part in the forum, citing scheduling conflicts. The Rev. Al Sharpton of New York was scheduled to appear but canceled because of a last-minute conflict, Parmley said.

Candidates arrived at a pre-forum barbecue Tuesday afternoon to the smell of smoked sausage and the sight of enthusiastic Democrats wearing Lieberman T-shirts, passing out Dean stickers and waving Kucinich signs.

Moseley Braun brought the crowd to a roar, saying Republicans ``tried to grab the flag and take it from us, but they can't because it's our flag too.''

Dean arrived to a throng of sign-waving supporters chanting ``We want Dean!'' They pressed around him as he said again and again, ``You're fantastic.''

``If you make me president of the United States, not only am I going to make you proud to vote Democrat again, I'm going to make you proud to be an American again,'' Dean said.