- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2003

DURHAM, N.H. — Democrats running for their party’s nomination to challenge President Bush gathered here last night in their last major opportunity to knock off former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who leads in the polls in several states early in the nomination process.

The nine candidates mostly avoided any talk of the economy, which has shown signs of recovering before next year’s election, instead focusing on Mr. Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq.

The first 15 minutes of the debate centered on former Vice President Al Gore’s endorsement yesterday of Mr. Dean.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, who barely registers in most polls, was asked about the Gore endorsement, and brought down the house by saying, “I can’t say as I was really counting on it.”

Then, like several of the other candidates during the 90-minute debate at the University of New Hampshire, Mr. Kucinich attacked the moderator, Ted Koppel, saying that questions about Mr. Gore’s endorsement “trivializes the issues that are before us.”

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who has seen his poll numbers evaporate in the heat of Mr. Dean’s campaign, also attacked Mr. Koppel.

Reminded by Mr. Koppel of his disappointing numbers, Mr. Kerry responded, saying, “If I were an impolite person, I’d tell you where you could take your polls.”

Last night’s debate was the last of six sponsored this year by the Democratic National Committee, to introduce the candidates to Democratic voters.

Previous debates have been lively affairs, but failed to provide any clear leader among the crowded field on stage. Some Democrats have complained that the party delayed rallying behind a clear winner by allowing unlikely candidates to participate.

Once again, the memorable moments in last night’s debate came from candidates with little or no chance of winning the nomination.

While discussing Mr. Gore’s endorsement of Mr. Dean, which took place in New York, the Rev. Al Sharpton wondered whether Mr. Gore had noticed that “Tammany Hall is not there anymore.”

“Boss-ism is not in this party,” he said. “Let the people decide.”

After Mr. Koppel noted Mr. Sharpton’s minuscule poll numbers, Mr. Sharpton ended the debate by saying that Mr. Koppel had little room to talk, given the small viewership of his “Nightline” program, compared with “Saturday Night Live,” which Mr. Sharpton hosted Saturday.

Mr. Dean rebutted the criticism by saying: “Attack me. Don’t attack Al Gore. I don’t think he deserves to be attacked by anybody up here.”

One year ago, Mr. Kerry was favored to win the nomination. Mr. Dean was considered a long shot.

By last night, Mr. Dean was leading in polls in New Hampshire and Iowa, home of the first two binding nomination contests.

A Franklin Pierce College poll shows Mr. Dean widening his lead to 25 percentage points over second-place Mr. Kerry in New Hampshire. Both hail from states that border New Hampshire and must win there to be considered viable after the Jan. 27 primary.

According to several polls, Mr. Kerry can’t win even if he collects the entire vote of those New Hampshire Democrats still undecided.

As for Mr. Dean, who first gained popularity based on his opposition to the war in Iraq, last night he tried to broaden the discussion. With 12 minutes left in the debate, he looked at his watch and said the affair had focused too heavily on Iraq.

“The president has lost 3 million jobs,” Mr. Dean said. “What this election is about is taking this country back for ordinary people.”

“We need to talk about how to move George Bush back to Crawford, Texas,” he said.

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