Democrats court liberal activists by criticizing war, Bush

Friday, June 6th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Democratic presidential candidates are tapping into liberal activists' continuing resentment over President Bush's war with Iraq.

"This administration has made decisions that have made the American people less secure, all the while pandering to fear to keep us at war until the elections are over," former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun told the "Take Back America" conference sponsored by two progressive groups, the Campaign for America's Future and the Institute for America's Future.

"This administration is using our pain out of 9-11 as a smoke screen for an extreme political agenda," she said.

The conference attracts the party's left wing, with booths promoting environmentalism, feminism, vegetarianism, birth control and an end to the drug war. The first booth many of the candidates saw when they entered was manned by volunteers trying to draft Al Gore, the 2000 presidential candidate who has said he won't run next year.

Addressing the group's closing session Friday, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri said Americans are eager for a change from the Bush administration -- and he promised to provide it.

"If we don't have a candidate with clear alternatives, they're going to vote for George Bush. I'm not going to be Bush-lite," Gephardt said in a speech to a half empty ballroom in a Washington hotel.

Gephardt, delivering his campaign stump speech to the liberals, called Bush's tax cut policies wrong and "mindless" and renewed his pledge to repeal them if he becomes president.

The candidates who spoke Thursday delivered speeches criticizing Bush on a wide range of issues besides the war, including labor rights, the environment, jobs, homeland security, education, housing and economics.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts brought the crowd to its feet by criticizing Bush's domestic agenda. He blamed Bush for a failure of diplomacy but went on to stress that Democrats must be the party of national security as well as domestic security.

If Democrats do not stand for "making America safer, stronger and more secure, for all we care about all those issues, we won't win back the White House and we won't deserve to," he said as the audience fell silent. He called for a "tough-minded strategy of international engagement."

His remarks were a stark contrast to those of Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who got a standing ovation when he said housing, education and other domestic priorities should be funded with money taken out of the defense budget. He called for peace and demanded the Bush administration disclose its evidence for claiming that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.

"Iraq did not have those weapons of mass destruction. This administration went in anyway," he said. "This war was wrong and we must expose this administration."

Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke dismissed the Democrats' criticism of the president.

"The best that the Democrats have to put forward to Americans is to hope for the worst for America," he said. "As an election strategy, we're not sure that people will appreciate that."

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who supported the Iraq war, did not address foreign affairs but used his speech to announce his proposal to lower the cost of prescription drugs. He assailed Bush for not adequately addressing health care costs, corporate fraud or civil and equal rights.

"The president keeps telling us he wants a debate about values in 2004 -- we are going to give him a debate about values," Edwards said. "Because this president's values are not the values of the American family."

Florida Sen. Bob Graham put out a statement applauding Edwards' proposal on prescription drugs. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean unveiled another plan to control drug care costs in a separate speech Thursday, but used his speech at the progressive conference to say he would paint the election as a choice between Bush's tax cuts and spending on health care, education, infrastructure and a balanced budget.

"I think most Americans will say I'll take jobs, health care and education because I didn't get the president's tax cut," he said.

Among those liberal voters attending the conference was actor-director Peter Horton, best known for his role on "thirtysomething." He said he's been galvanized to get more involved in politics because he's so opposed to Bush's foreign policy, among other issues. He said he is considering whether to support Kerry, Dean or Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt.

"It's a balancing act between responding to a candidate's platform or whether they can beat President Bush in the election," he said. "I still don't feel like I know which can beat Bush yet."