- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

Democratic presidential candidates are preparing for their first campaign debate today, when they will thrash out their party’s divisions over national security, the Iraq war, health care and former Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond.The 90-minute televised debate, hosted by ABC News in Columbia, S.C., could well turn into a political slugfest between two of the party’s leading candidates, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. The two men have been bitterly attacking each other’s positions on the war in Iraq for the past several weeks.The debate comes at a critical time when leading party strategists are warning the Democrats they are losing public support because of their weakness on national security issues and the absence of a clear, visible growth policy to revive the economy.”Democrats have a mountain to climb in 2004 — not only because President Bush is popular but because our national party has seriously regressed in the past two years,” said Al From, founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.The political landscape changed dramatically after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. From said in a “New Democrat” manifesto sent out to DLC members. “Now old doubts have re-emerged about our party’s ability to keep our country and economy strong.”He said that if Democrats are to win the voters’ trust to run the government again, the Democratic presidential candidates must strengthen their credentials on national security. “We have got to convince the voters that we’ll keep the country safe,” Mr. From said. But Mr. Dean, his party’s leading antiwar candidate who until recently was tied in the polls with Mr. Kerry in New Hampshire, has refused to acknowledge that the Iraqis are better off without Saddam Hussein’s regime. He also has suggested that the United States “won’t always have the strongest military.”“We’ve gotten rid of [Saddam]. I suppose that’s a good thing,” Mr. Dean said in a campaign speech as the war in Iraq ended. That led the Kerry campaign to lash out at Mr. Dean, saying that his remark “raises serious questions about his capacity to serve as commander in chief.”Mr. Kerry, the front-runner for the nomination, never misses an opportunity to talk about his Vietnam War record wherever he speaks, especially during a recent swing through the South where his wartime experience has bolstered his national security credentials. Despite his image as a Northeast liberal, he has been receiving strong reviews from southern Democratic chairmen, even though they tend to be more conservative in their views. The candidates’ battle over national defense and the war has even larger implications for their party. Polls show that Republicans are trusted far more than Democrats to deal with national defense issues. Although antiwar Democrats make up a large part of their party’s base, Mr. Kerry and several of his rivals for the nomination, including Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, voted for the congressional resolution that approved the use of force to oust Saddam from power.Meantime, Mr. Gephardt is hoping to make his universal health care plan the chief focus of the campaign. The plan, which would require employers to provide health insurance for all their workers, would be financed through general funds and tax credits by repealing Mr. Bush’s tax cuts. Mr. Dean, who will soon propose a plan of his own, has said the Gephardt plan is too expensive and impractical.But Mr. Edwards, who was born in South Carolina, may have inserted a new wrinkle into this weekend’s debate in a letter that, in part, criticized Mr. Thurmond — a legend in South Carolina politics — for his past segregationist views.”It is no wonder that the rest of America has such a stereotypical view of Southerners. You and I must show America that the Old South of [Mississippi Sen.] Trent Lott and Strom Thurmond is in the past, and the New South can produce true leaders who can unite and not divide,” Mr. Edwards said in the letter that was sent to several hundred supporters in the South.Republican leaders in the state called the statement “disrespectful,” “immature,” and “arrogant,” and even Democrats said his remarks were insulting to the venerable former lawmaker.”It is a poor choice of words and an unfair statement. Edwards needs to offer the real Strom Thurmond an apology,” said state Sen. Tommy Moore, a former member of the Democratic National Committee.Mr. Edwards’ letter, first reported Thursday in the Raleigh News and Observer, was seen by his rivals as a pre-debate move to reach out to black voters who make up about 40 percent of South Carolina’s political base. Jennifer Palmieri, Mr. Edwards’ campaign press secretary, refused to release the entire text of the senator’s letter but said, “He stands by his remark.”Meanwhile, a new survey of likely Iowa caucus voters by pollster John Zogby found that Mr. Gephardt has widened his lead to 25 percent in the state, which will hold the nation’s first nominating contest on Jan. 19. Mr. Kerry came in second with 13 percent and Mr. Lieberman slipped into third place with 9 percent.However, polls show Mr. Kerry has recently moved ahead of Mr. Dean in New Hampshire.

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