The Democrats running for president largely ignored retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the new entrant in the field, during yesterday’s debate, and instead spent time trying to make former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean reconcile his past statements with his new positions.
On issues ranging from trade to Medicare, Mr. Dean took criticism from his fellow Democrats.
“When I was leading the fight against Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America — he was shutting the government down — Howard, you were agreeing with the very plan that Newt Gingrich wanted to pass, which was a $270 billion cut in Medicare,” said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, referring to the former Georgia Republican lawmaker and one-time speaker of the House.
“Now, you’ve been saying for many months that you’re the head of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. I think you’re just winging it,” Mr. Gephardt said.
Mr. Dean protested the comparison, saying he opposed the way Medicare was administered, not the program itself.
“I’m ashamed that you would compare me with Newt Gingrich. Nobody up here deserves to be compared to Newt Gingrich,” he said. “To insinuate that I would get rid of Medicare is wrong, it’s not helpful, and we need to remember that the enemy here is George Bush, not each other.”
But Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts defended Mr. Gephardt, saying he was comparing Mr. Dean’s policy on Medicare, which is fair game.
“It’s also a policy difference when Governor Dean says that we could balance the budget by cutting veterans’ benefits, cutting Social Security, cutting defense. ‘It’d be tough,’ he says, ‘but we could do it,’” Mr. Kerry said.
He also criticized Mr. Dean for proposing to roll back all of President Bush’s tax cuts, calling it “absolutely wrong” and listing the tax increases that would result for middle-class families.
Mr. Dean, though, said that kind of thinking is what led to budget deficits: “Washington politicians promising everything.”
The most recent published polls have shown Mr. Dean leading the Democratic field in the early primary and caucus states of New Hampshire and Iowa, even though the new national polls show Mr. Clark a leader among Democrats nationwide.
Though Mr. Dean faced the most questions about his past positions, Mr. Clark was also asked to explain his past remarks, like a speech two years ago in which he praised both Mr. Bush and former President Ronald Reagan.
“We elected a president we thought was a compassionate conservative. Instead, we got neither conservatism or compassion,” Mr. Clark said. “We got a man who recklessly cut taxes. We got a man who recklessly took us into war with Iraq.”
“I am pro-choice, I am pro-affirmative action, I’m pro-environment, pro-health. I believe the United States should engage with allies. We should be a good player in the international community. And we should use force only as a last resort. That’s why I’m proud to be a Democrat,” he said.
The two-hour afternoon debate was held at Pace University in New York City and was telecast live on CNBC and later on MSNBC.
Also participating in the debate were former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton and Sens. Bob Graham of Florida, John Edwards of North Carolina and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
It was sponsored by the Democratic National Committee and designed to focus on the economy. For the most part, that meant attacking President Bush and his economic program.
“What this president is doing is trying to shift the tax burden in America from wealth to work,” Mr. Edwards said.
All of the candidates who addressed the issue embraced a partial or full rollback of the most recent round of Mr. Bush’s tax cuts as a way to pay for rebuilding Iraq.
The candidates also took turns bashing Mr. Bush’s handling of postwar Iraq, with Mr. Graham calling it “antipatriotic at the core” to make the American military the sole bearers of the burden of rebuilding that nation.