KWAME HOLMAN: Last night's debate, held on the campus of Morgan State University in Baltimore, was the first of two to be sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, and featured many questions on issues of particular interest to African American voters. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean is from a state with only a tiny black population.
ED GORDON, Black Entertainment Television: Frankly, there's been some concern that because of the racial makeup of Vermont, about 0.5 percent black, that you will have a difficult time connecting and really understanding the concerns of minorities, in particular African Americans.
HOWARD DEAN: Well, if the percentage of minorities that's in your state has anything to do with how you can connect with African American voters, then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King. (Laughter) I'll tell you why I connect with African American audiences. I'm the only white politician that ever talks about race in front of white audiences. Black folks have heard lectures from white politicians for a long time. We always talk about race. White folks need to talk to white people in America about race.
KWAME HOLMAN: Senators John Edwards and John Kerry later took issue with Dean for those comments, insisting they and the other candidates have made issues of racial equality keys to their campaigns. The debate featured all nine of the announced Democratic candidates for president, and a few unscheduled participants as well. Supporters of frequent presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche, shouting from the back of the auditorium, disrupted the forum several times. Reverend Al Sharpton, who failed to appear at a previous debate, and was late to two others, objected to the interruption at this one.
AL SHARPTON: We do not, at all, going to tolerate the continual breakup of what we're trying to say here tonight to the American people. ( Applause )
KWAME HOLMAN: Sharpton was asked if black voters, who often vote overwhelmingly Democratic, are taken for granted by the party.
JUAN WILLIAMS, National Public Radio: Do you think that it's time that black voters get ready for a date with the GOP, or begin to flirt with the idea of a black American party?
AL SHARPTON: No, I think we need to take the Democratic Party home to our daddies, and discuss marriage or a breakup. I think that it's time. (Applause) We helped take you to the dance, and you leave with right wingers, you leave with people that you say are swing voters, you leave with people that are antithetical to our history and antithetical to our interests.
KWAME HOLMAN: Questions from the panel focused on President Bush's handling of domestic and foreign policy issues. Post-war Iraq and the president's request for $87 billion for military and rebuilding operations dominated.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: I'm glad the president final owe found an economic development program. I'm just sad that it's only in Baghdad. I think that we cannot authorize or appropriate $87 billion without pulling back some of the unfair Bush tax cut for the wealthiest Americans and investing in the United States of America. If we can open firehouses in Baghdad, we can keep them open in the United States of America.
ED GORDON: And you have, perhaps more than any other up here, suggested that the president has misled the country. I'm wondering if you believe he did so intentionally.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, I don't know the answer to that question until we have the full measure of the investigation into the intelligence and the intelligence failure here. We do know that that exists.
KWAME HOLMAN: Florida Senator Bob Graham:
QUESTIONER: Do you believe that the president intentionally misled the American people?
BOB GRAHAM: Yes...( applause ) ...I was a member of the Senate intelligence committee for ten years; chairman the last two years during the investigation into 9/11. The president knew, or should have known, that there was no relationship between 9/11, there was no relationship between Osama-been-forgotten and Saddam Hussein.
KWAME HOLMAN: The most scathing attack on the president's Iraq policy was delivered by Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt, who voted in favor of the Iraq war resolution.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: It is incomprehensible to me that we are here today, six months, five months after the conflict ended, and he still has not gotten any money from any other country, and any people of appreciable numbers from any other armed forces. It is an abomination that he has not gotten our country and our troops the help that we need. When I'm president, if he hasn't done it, I'll get the help that we need.
KWAME HOLMAN: Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich voted against the war resolution.
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Dick-- who is a good friend of mine-- dick, I just want to say that when you were standing there in the Rose Garden with the president and you were giving him advice, I wish that you would have told him "no," because as our Democratic leader, your position as our Democratic leader... your position helped to inform mightily the direction of the war.
KWAME HOLMAN: Senators Kerry and Lieberman also supported the president's Iraq resolution.
AL SHARPTON: And what bothers me is that some in the Congress that supported the president should have asked him before they gave him entrance what the exit was.
KWAME HOLMAN: Former Illinois senator carol Moseley Braun was asked about Attorney General John Ashcroft's recent efforts to drum up public support for the Patriot Act.
JUAN WILLIAMS: According to a Gallup Poll that's out today, 69 percent of Americans think that the Patriot Act is right, or that is doesn't go far enough. And yet from the candidates on this stage, we hear that the Patriot Act is really an abuse of civil liberties in America. How do you explain this divergence of view?
CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN: Well, you know, a generation ago, the president of the United States told the American people that all we had to fear was fear itself. This administration, on the other hand, has pandered to fear and frightened the American people at every turn. And the Patriot Act is just part of that. We would do a disservice to our people and to our generation if we were to stand by and allow our generation to give the next generation less liberty, less opportunity, less hope than we inherited from the last.
KWAME HOLMAN: North Carolina Senator John Edwards:
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: What we have to remember-- and I will when I am president of the United States-- is what it is we are supposed to be fighting for; what it is we are supposed to be protecting. These very liberties, this privacy, these constitutional rights, that's what's at stake in this fight. And we cannot let people like John Ashcroft take them away in an effort to protect ourselves.
KWAME HOLMAN: Governor Dean and Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman were the only candidates last night who confronted each other. At issue was U.S. support for Israel.
QUESTIONER: Governor Dean, you recently said the United States should not "take sides in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict." Do you really mean that after all of these years of alliance and friendship between the United States and Israel, that the U.S. should maintain some sort of neutral stance?
HOWARD DEAN: What I do mean is we need to be a credible negotiator, a facilitator for peace in the Middle East, and that means we have to be trusted by both sides.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: All of us here on the stage have quite correctly criticized George W. Bush for not standing by our values in our foreign policy, and for breaking our most critical alliances. That, with all respect, is exactly what Howard Dean's comments over the last week about the Middle East have done. He has said he wouldn't take sides, but then he has said Israel ought to get out of the West Bank and an enormous number of their settlements ought to be broken down. That's up to the parties in their negotiations, not for us to tell them.
QUESTIONER: Governor Dean, you were pretty specifically mentioned there. You have 30 seconds to respond to that.
HOWARD DEAN: I am disappointed in Joe. My position on Israel is exactly the same as bill Clinton's. I want to be an honest.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Not right.
HOWARD DEAN: Excuse me, Joe. I didn't interrupt you, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't interrupt me.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Not right.
HOWARD DEAN: I think America needs to be an honest broker. We desperately need peace in the Middle East. It doesn't help, Joe, to demagogue this issue. We're all democrats. We need to beat George Bush so we can have peace in the Middle East. ( Applause )
KWAME HOLMAN: The candidates will debate economic issues when they meet again in two weeks, at pace university in New York City.