The largely cordial discussion covered issues ranging from the ongoing unrest and reconstruction of Iraq, to the anemic economy, health care and immigration issues, among others.
Differences between the candidates were often nuances, but differences with the administration of President George Bush were stark.
Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri repeatedly labeled President Bush a “miserable failure” due to his policies in Iraq and for injuring ties with historic allies.
“We have a president who has broken up the alliances that Democratic and Republican presidents have put together over 70 years,” the former House Democratic leader said. “It would be a big difference in Iraq if we had an international force there and not just American and British troops. [The president] is not doing his job.”
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts also criticized Mr. Bush’s handling of Iraq, saying that, “being flown to an aircraft carrier and pronouncing the words ‘mission accomplished’ does not end a war and the swagger of a president who says ‘bring ’em on’ does not bring our troops peace or safety.”
The situation in Iraq dominated the early part of the debate, with differences emerging over whether to send more troops to the war-torn nation. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut called for more troops to be sent to stabilize Iraq, while Congressman Dennis Kucinich called on American soldiers to leave the country now. Most other candidates called for greater international involvement.
Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean said the U.S. needed to internationalize the mission in Iraq, but said the actions of President Bush had made the situation more difficult.
“In order to get the United Nations and NATO into Iraq, this president is going to have to go back to the very people he humiliated, our allies, on the way into Iraq and hope … that they will now agree with us that we need their help there,” Dean said. “We were wrong to go in without the United Nations. Now, we need their help and that is not a surprise.”
Senator Bob Graham outlined his opposition to the Iraq war resolution last fall, saying the war against the Saddam Hussein regime marked a failure of the U.S. to stay focused on the threat of terrorism.
“I voted against it because I thought it was the wrong war against the wrong enemy which represented the lesser threat to the people of the United States,” Graham said, but added he would support additional money for the mission in Iraq to give American troops the aid they need.
All eight condemned the president’s handling of the economy, blaming Mr. Bush for the loss of millions of jobs.
“The president goes around the country speaking Spanish. The only Spanish he speaks when it comes to jobs is hasta la vista,” North Carolina Senator John Edwards said, adding that one of the key things needed to bolster the economy “is something this president is incapable of doing, which is cracking down on corporate cheating.”
On the issues of trade, several of the candidates struck different positions.
Sen. Lieberman stressed the need for open, but fair trade, warning the policies of some, notably apparent front-runner Dean, would further injure the economy.
Lieberman told the audience that if Dean continued to advocate American standards for labor, environmental and human rights as a prerequisite on all trade agreements, “the Bush recession would be followed by the Dean depression. We cannot put a wall around America.”
Rep. Kucinich struck a more direct message, saying his first day in office he would “cancel NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Act) and the WTO (World Trade Organization) and return to bilateral trade … conditioned on workers’ rights, human rights and the environment.”
Democrats also split over how to help the 41 million Americans who lack health insurance.
Former Senator and Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, called for universal coverage, under a national system.
“What I have proposed is a single-payer system that will take advantage of the fact that we are already paying 15 percent of our gross domestic product on health care, decouple it from employment so it is not a burden on job creation … and with the revenue we have from that 15 percent we can then afford a system much like the federal employees have,” Amb. Braun said.
In addition, the candidates tackled immigration and civil rights issues during the 90-minute wide-ranging discussion.
New Mexico Governor and former Clinton administration cabinet official Bill Richardson, welcomed the candidates and helped organize the debate. Earlier in the day he said he saw the night’s event as the real opening of the Democratic race.
“This is the opening bell of the campaign,” Richardson told the Associated Press.
The candidates criticized one another’s policies very little, instead directing the vast majority of barbs for the president. Republican Party leaders were quick to dismiss the debate.
“They are a party divided,” Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie said. “They have differing positions on everything from Iraq to tax cuts… The one thing they were unified on was their negativity and their attacks on the president.”
All announced candidates were invited to participate in the debate, but the Rev. Al Sharpton was unable to attend due to weather delays in New York.
The debate was moderated by the NewsHour’s Ray Suarez and Univision’s Maria Elena Salinas and aired live on many PBS stations and will air this weekend on the Spanish-language Univision.