- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

Wesley Clark faced tough charges from fellow Democratic presidential hopefuls during a debate last night as his fellow candidates called him a recent Democratic convert who has flip-flopped on key issues.

In particular, the field criticized him for past comments that seemed to indicate he supported President Bush and the war in Iraq — something he now disputes.

“Each of the nine of us wants to be the commander in chief of the United States military and protect the security of this country. That requires a clarity of judgment and the courage to stick by the judgment you’ve made,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

“I must say that I’ve been very disappointed since Wes Clark came into this race about the various positions he has taken on the war against Saddam Hussein.”

Mr. Clark, though, chastised his fellow candidates during the 90-minute debate at the Orpheum Theater in Phoenix, capital of a state that holds an early primary Feb. 3.

“I think it’s really embarrassing that a group of candidates up here are working on changing the leadership in this country and can’t get their own story straight,” he said.

He said he “would never have voted for war” if it meant voting for the resolution that passed Congress last year with the support of four of the five candidates who are members of Congress.

“I would have voted for a resolution that took the problem to the United Nations. I would not have voted for a resolution that would have taken us to war. It’s that simple,” Mr. Clark said.

It was the third of six scheduled debates sponsored by the Democratic National Committee. Judy Woodruff of CNN, which aired the debate, served as moderator. In the second half of the debate, the candidates fielded questions from the audience.

Since entering the race last month, Mr. Clark, a retired general, has shot to the top of national polls, and recent polls show him topping former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean by about 5 percent. The rest of the field trails behind.

Mr. Dean, though, is tied or ahead of the pack in Iowa and New Hampshire, the states with the earliest binding nomination contests.

Yesterday, the next tier of candidates — Mr. Lieberman, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina — all turned their main attacks on Mr. Clark and Mr. Dean.

Mr. Dean took heat for past remarks that seemed to support cuts in Medicare.

“At our darkest hour, when were fighting against the Republicans who had just taken over the Congress, he was in agreement — and I’m not criticizing him for it, that was his belief — he was in agreement with the Republican stand to have a deep, devastating cut in Medicare,” Mr. Gephardt said.

Mr. Dean said he supports Medicare, but believes it is run poorly.

He said he stands out because, as the only governor in the current field, he has a record of executive accomplishments. Four of the past five presidents came to the White House as governors or former governors.

“The people that criticized me on this stage have never delivered health insurance,” Mr. Dean said, pointing to the children’s insurance and seniors’ prescription-drug programs that he expanded as Vermont governor.

“The last poll I saw showed that there are five of us up here that are going to beat George Bush. So the question is not whether we’re going to beat George Bush, but what kind of a president do you want,” Mr. Dean said.

The field of candidates has shrunk to nine after Sen. Bob Graham of Florida dropped out of the race earlier this week. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton also took part in yesterday’s debate.

Mr. Bush, who had been the focus of the previous debates, got somewhat less attention last night. But there was still plenty of criticism of his economic and foreign policies, particularly what was said to be his failure to form an international coalition to rebuild Iraq.

“You remember on your report card you had your English grade and your history grade, and then it says, ‘plays well with others?’ He flunked that part of his grade school,” Mr. Gephardt said.

Mr. Bush wasn’t the only one to take shots.

“There are two ways for you to have lower prescription-drug costs,” Mr. Kerry said. “One is, you could hire Rush Limbaugh’s housekeeper — or you could elect me president.”

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