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KWAME HOLMAN: Unlike in earlier debates, last night the Democratic presidential candidates spent little time attacking each other and focused almost all of their criticism on President Bush. Several accused the administration of manipulating prewar intelligence and rushing to invade Iraq. Moderator Tom Brokaw questioned former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
TOM BROKAW: All this week, we’ve been hearing from David Kay, who was the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, saying that the intelligence was almost all wrong. You said that the “books were cooked.” Cooking the books means that there was a fraud of some kind in an attempt to achieve something that wasn’t, in fact, true. David Kay has said that wasn’t the case. He thinks the president was just simply abused by the intelligence agencies.
HOWARD DEAN: Well, I don’t think anybody knows for sure, and that’s why I support the idea of an independent commission. What we do know is this: The president was not candid with the American people when we went to war. It’s why I did not support going to war, even thought I did support the first Gulf War and I did support the Afghanistan war. I simply didn’t believe what the president was saying.
What we now find out is that the vice president, Dick Cheney, went to the CIA, on at least one occasion and maybe more, sat with middle-level CIA operatives and berated them because he didn’t like their intelligence reports. It seems to me that the vice president of the United States, therefore, influenced the very reports that the president then used to decide to go to war.
TOM BROKAW: Senator Kerry, Governor Dean has made a very serious charge against the vice president, saying that he went to the CIA. We know that he did that. But do you believe that he berated middle-level people at the intelligence agency to, in effect, shape the intelligence that he wanted?
SEN. JOHN KERRY: There is a very legitimate question, Tom, about what the vice president of the United States was doing at the CIA. There is an enormous question about the exaggeration by this administration. But the most important point, and I think this is the larger issues of how you choose somebody to run and to be president of the United States, the president gave guarantees not just to the Congress and to the American people, but to the world, about how he would conduct himself as president.
KWAME HOLMAN: Retired Gen. Wesley Clark weighed in.
GEN. WESLEY CLARK (Ret.): I heard from the Pentagon two weeks after 9/11 that the administration was determined to go into Iraq, whether or not there was any connection with 9/11, that they were going to use it as a pretext for invading Iraq. And that was common knowledge in Washington. There should never have been a congressional authorization for the president to have a blank check to take this country to war because everybody knew that’s what he intended to do and they knew what the timetable was. It was a politically motivated timetable to go on the 30th of March, just like this 30th of June date.
We’ve got to change this government. We’ve got a president who is playing politics with national security and we need to hold him accountable, and that’s what I want to do. ( Applause )
KWAME HOLMAN: North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said the president’s heavy focus on national security has left other domestic issues neglected.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: I think the problem here is the administration’s not doing the things, number one, that need to be done to keep this country safe both here and abroad. And number two, the president actually has to be able to do two things at once.
This president thinks his presidency is only about the war on terrorism, only about national security. Those things are critical for a commander-in-chief, but as we’re going to talk about, I’m sure, going forward, there’s a lot the president’s not doing — about jobs lost, about a health care crisis in this country. The president of the United States has to actually be able to walk and chew chewing gum at the same time — has to be able to do two things at the same time. ( Cheers and applause )
KWAME HOLMAN: The candidates also discussed South Carolina’s economy. It has been decimated by overseas competition. The state has lost 65,000 textile jobs in the last ten years. Many voters here blame the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, ratified by Congress a decade ago. Brokaw questioned Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.
TOM BROKAW: Senator Lieberman, NAFTA has become the bogeyman of this campaign, especially among Democrats. It was passed by your party.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: That’s right.
TOM BROKAW: Was it a mistake?
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: It was not a mistake. Very important to say that all of us up here and all Democrats rightfully brag about the Clinton economic record — 22 million new jobs created in the eight years. Trade was a key part of that. And NAFTA, though it’s cost some jobs, has actually netted out 900,000 new jobs that were created by NAFTA.
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: By and large, the American people are not aware of how trade has changed dramatically. It’s no longer about protectionism versus free trade. It’s about global corporations who are accelerating a race to the bottom, trying to get cheap labor wherever they can get it. That’s why we’ve lost hundreds of textile plants in this country. That’s why our steel, automotive, aerospace, shipping and textile industries are in such severe trouble.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Rev. Al Sharpton followed up on Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s point.
AL SHARPTON: We need to create jobs. Not only do we need to rescind NAFTA — and I think we must rescind it. You can’t correct it. It has cost jobs, it has sent jobs from this state to Asia and other places. We also must have a public works program. I propose a five-year, $250 billion plan to rebuild the infrastructure, highways, roadways, bridges. We must create jobs. This president has increased the deficit, has not increased jobs, and is embracing the rich at the expense of working class and poor people. And it’s doubled in communities of color. Black unemployment in this state is double. We face class and race. I don’t think we can tolerate that four more years.
KWAME HOLMAN: The only sharp exchange of the night came after Howard Dean was asked about the cost of the new Medicare prescription drug program. Dean used the opportunity to attack the candidate who replaced him as Democratic front-runner, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
HOWARD DEAN: When I was governor, I got everybody in my state who’s under 18 health insurance. I got a third of all our seniors prescription benefits.
Now, Senator Kerry is the front-runner and I mean him no insult, but in 19 years in the Senate, Senator Kerry sponsored nine, eleven bills that had anything to do with health care; not one of them passed. If you want a president who is going to get results, I suggest that you look at somebody who has executive experience in governing, particularly in health care, particularly somebody who is a doctor who understands these things, who is willing to get stuff done. And I don’t think we’re going to do that getting somebody from the United States Senate to be the Democratic nominee. ( Applause )
TOM BROKAW: Senator, I think they’d say you deserve a response to that.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, one of the things that you need to know as president is how things work in Congress, if you want to get things done. ( Applause ) And one of the things that happens in Congress is you can, in fact, write a bill, but if you’re smart about it, you can get your bill passed on someone else’s bill that doesn’t carry your name.
KWAME HOLMAN: Voters will go to the polls in South Carolina and six other states on Tuesday.