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Democrats Debate in New Hampshire

BY   January 23, 2004 at 1:55 PM EDT

The seven Democratic candidates used the nationally televised two-hour debate to appeal for support from New Hampshire Democrats and independent voters participating in Tuesday’s primary, each one attempting to position himself as the one with the best chance to beat the incumbent president.

Avoiding the infighting that has marked other debates, the seven men carefully struck a civil tone and reserved their attacks for the Bush administration.

“This country is being led in a radically wrong direction by this president,” said Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Iowa winner who surged into the lead in New Hampshire polls ahead of Tuesday’s primary.

“I look forward to standing up and holding George Bush accountable,” Kerry said. “The workplace of America has never been as unfair for the average American as it is today.”

“This is a time to be affirmative,” said Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who is lagging in fifth place in New Hampshire polls and did not participate in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses. “We’re making our closing arguments to the people of New Hampshire. I’m going to talk about myself.”

North Carolina’s John Edwards, the freshman senator who finished a strong second in Iowa, defended assertions that he lacks the experience in public office to be an effective president.

“I’m someone who has been in Washington long enough to see what’s wrong with it and how it should be changed,” said Edwards.

“We need to spend more time talking about the issues than talking about ourselves,” he added.

Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, who also skipped the Iowa contest, rejected charges against his Democratic credentials based on the fact that he voted for Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

“I’m a Democrat of conviction,” said Clark, the former NATO commander who has risen in the polls in New Hampshire and is trying to challenge Vietnam veteran Kerry for support from the military and its veterans.

Clark also criticized the Bush administration’s handling of the war on terror.

“Before 9/11, he did not do everything he could have done to keep this country safe,” said Clark. “After 9/11 [President Bush] took us to a war we didn’t have to fight and Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida is still going strong.”

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the one-time front-runner of the Democratic pack, struck a cautious tone as he struggled to right his candidacy after the public scrutiny of a boisterous speech he gave supporters following his third-place finish in Iowa.

“I’m not a perfect person,” Dean said. “A lot of people have had fun with my Iowa hollers.”

Dean emphasized his experience running the state of Vermont and stuck to his basic campaign themes, including his long-standing opposition to the Iraq war.

Noting that about 500 Americans had been killed in Iraq, he said “those soldiers were sent there by the vote of Senator Lieberman and Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards. That is a fact.”

Dean also addressed domestic issues. “The future health of this country depends on a balanced budget, and we’ve got to start telling the truth and stop making promises,” he said. “We have got to talk about education, jobs and health care.”

After the debate, ABC aired an interview with Dean and his wife, Dr. Judy Steinberg, who has been absent from many of Dean’s campaign events. It was the first time she has spoken on television.

“I am kind of private, and I have a son in Burlington I like to stay with, and I have a medical practice, which I love,” she said. “It’s really important for me, and Howard knows it’s important to me. But, I also love Howard, and I think he would make a terrific president.”

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and the Rev. Al Sharpton also participated in Thursday’s debate. Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., and former Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun have dropped out of the Democratic field.

The debate was sponsored by four news organizations: Fox News Channel, ABC News, The Union Leader of Manchester and WMUR-TV.