GWEN IFILL: Last night, the Democratic candidates for president came together once again to debate. The session, which I moderated, lasted 90 minutes and was seen on the Fox News Channel. Meeting in Detroit for their fifth debate in two months, the nine Democratic candidates for president agreed on one thing: One of them should replace President Bush. For that, the cheers from the partisan audience assembled by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute were long and loud. ( Cheers and applause ) But the candidates' disagreements about each other also surfaced repeatedly, especially over the war in Iraq and whether it was wise to support the president's request for $87 billion to finance postwar reconstruction. Howard Dean, who has raised the most money and is leading in some early polls, did not support the war or the request for funding.
CARL CAMERON: What do you say to service members and their families who view your position as something short of supporting the troops?
HOWARD DEAN: I don't think servicemen and women do view my position as short of supporting the troops. I've made it very clear that we need to support our troops, unlike President Bush, who tried to cut their combat pay after they'd been over there and he'd doubled their tour of duty, unlike President Bush, who tried to cut... who successfully cut 164,000 veterans of their healthcare benefits. I'd say all of us up here support our troops a great deal more than the President of the United States does.
GWEN IFILL: By contrast, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, who voted for the war and for the $87 billion, criticized three of his rivals. Senators John Kerry and John Edwards supported the original war resolution, but voted against the $87 billion. And retired General Wesley Clark has in the past praised the president's handling of the war, but now maintains he would never have supported the resolution.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: We're trying to replace a president who doesn't level with the American people, who's not consistent. And we're not going to do it unless we also level. So I don't know how John Kerry and John Edwards can say that they supported the war but then oppose the funding of the troops who went to fight the war that the resolution that they supported authorized. I've been over Wes Clark's record and statements on this so many times. I heard him tonight. He took six different positions on whether going to war was the right idea. (Laughter) It took him four days to decide whether voting on the $87 billion was a good idea. General Clark?
GEN. WESLEY CLARK: Thank you, Gwen. Well, I wasn't in Congress. I wasn't able to vote on the $87 billion, but I want to make it very clear that I would not have voted on $87 billion. I want to commend John Edwards and John Kerry and those who voted against this resolution. I didn't believe last year we should have given George Bush a blank check in Iraq. He said he was going to go to the U.N. Instead, he started a war.
GWEN IFILL: Edwards and Kerry were next to respond to Lieberman's charge.
JOHN EDWARDS: Here's my view, Joe. For me to vote "yes" on that would be to give this president a blank check, and I am not willing to give George Bush a blank check. ( Applause ) And I will never give George Bush a blank check. ( Applause )
GWEN IFILL: Senator Kerry?
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, Joe, I have seared in me an experience which you don't have, and that's the experience of being one of those troops on the frontlines when the policy has gone wrong. ( Applause ) And the way you best protect the troops is to guarantee that you put the troops in the safest, strongest position as fast as possible. Our troops are today more exposed, are in greater danger, because this president didn't put together a real coalition, because this president's been unwilling to share the burden and the task.
GWEN IFILL: Lieberman acknowledged Kerry's experience in Vietnam.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Okay, I want to say obviously I respect John Kerry's military service to our country, but that's not what this is about. This is about the votes that he's cast that I believe are inconsistent. In fact, what do we look back and wonder about our time in Vietnam? We didn't support our troops. If everyone had voted the way John Kerry did, the money wouldn't have been there to support our troops.
GWEN IFILL: And Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt explained why he voted "yes" on the additional funding for Iraq.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I think we all try to do what we think is right. That's what I try to do. I thought the right thing to do, even though I want part of it to be alone and have a lot of other suggestions about where the money could come from, in the end you're presented in the Congress with a vote up or down on the $87 billion. And I can't find it within myself to not vote for the money to support the troops, our young men and women who are over there protecting us, dodging bullets in a very tough and difficult situation. And so I felt the right thing to do was to do that.
GWEN IFILL: The discussion also touched on domestic issues, with the candidates discussing deficit reduction, Medicare, Social Security and urban issues. All nine will meet several times in coming weeks, as campaigning intensifies in Iowa and New Hampshire.