- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2004

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Wesley Clark said in last night’s final New Hampshire presidential debate that Democratic voters should ignore criticisms that he was a Republican his whole life before registering as a Democrat last year to run for president.

After listing his liberal positions — “I’m pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-environment and pro-labor” — the retired Army general said, “I was either going to be the loneliest Republican in the world or a happy Democrat.”

Although no candidate went after any other onstage harshly — saving their fire for President Bush — Sen. Joe Lieberman’s campaign staffers issued six press releases attacking Mr. Clark, including one that had a political timeline of Mr. Clark’s life, during which he has voted for five Republican presidents.

The timeline also included a statement Mr. Clark made at a fund-raiser for Mr. Bush at which he praised Mr. Bush and the administration, saying: “I’m very glad we’ve got the great team in office.”

Despite the boxing-ring bell that sounded when each candidate’s answering time was over, the candidates in the final debate before next week’s crucial New Hampshire primary refrained from any uppercuts or body blows.

Polling after the upset in Iowa suggests that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri plummeted into third and fourth places there because their campaigns had turned intensely negative toward each other in the final weeks.

One commentator called it a “murder suicide” by Mr. Gephardt who first began the attacks on Mr. Dean, who responded in kind when he began seeing his support wane.

Next week’s New Hampshire vote has shifted dramatically since Sen. John Kerry’s upset victory in Iowa, with Mr. Kerry, from neighboring Massachusetts, snatching the lead in New Hampshire from Mr. Dean.

During last night’s debate at St. Anselm College, Mr. Dean kept his barbs to himself while his aides dispatched four attacks on Mr. Kerry, accusing him of falling under the spell of special interests.

Onstage, a hoarse and sedate Mr. Dean concentrated on reversing the damage done by his bizarre rant after his poor finish in Monday’s Iowa caucus.

“You may notice that my voice is a little hoarse,” he said at his first turn to speak. “It’s not because I was whooping and hollering at my third-place finish in Iowa. It’s because I have a cold.”

Later, the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York consoled Mr. Dean, saying that if he’d spent as much as Mr. Dean in Iowa and only got 18 percent, “I’d still be in Iowa hooting and hollering. So — don’t worry about it, Howard.”

Mr. Dean also defended himself against accusations that he speaks without thinking.

“You know, my words are not always precise,” he said. “But my meaning is very, very clear.”

But mostly, the debate wandered peacefully across an array of issues producing few stark feuds among contenders.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, who lags in the polls, promised “to have a very infinitely interesting journey to planet Earth.”

One rare episode of feather ruffling came when one of the questioners suggested that Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina — who voted to authorize war in Iraq — had lodged a protest vote when he voted against more funding for the effort.

“It was not a protest vote,” he said, almost angrily. “If mine had been the deciding vote, I’d do that again.”

For the most part, the contenders focused their attacks on Mr. Bush and the question of who would be best-equipped to defeat him. Mr. Lieberman, who is lagging badly in polls, insisted his “moderate record” is exactly what is needed to defeat Mr. Bush.

“Republicans can’t run their normal playbook on me,” he said. “They can’t say I’m a big taxer and a big spender.”

In the debate, Mr. Edwards cited his support for gun rights in saying how he defeated Republican incumbent Lauch Faircloth to win his seat in 1998.

“I didn’t get to the Senate by accident,” he said.

This week, the North Carolina senator has been emphasizing that none of the other candidates polls well against Mr. Bush in the South.

The polls here continue to show Mr. Kerry surging past Mr. Dean after his spectacular win in Iowa this week. Two polls — one by the Boston Globe and one by the Boston Herald — show Mr. Kerry with 31 percent and Mr. Dean with 21 percent, a reversal from poll results last week.

Mr. Kerry further established his credentials as front-runner by netting a couple of key endorsements yesterday. His three hometown newspapers — the Boston Phoenix, Boston Herald and Boston Globe — all threw their support behind him.

More important strategically for Mr. Kerry was the endorsement yesterday from his longtime colleague, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat. Mr. Hollings plans to campaign with Mr. Kerry in New Hampshire today.

That could spell trouble for Mr. Edwards, who has banked his entire campaign on winning the Feb. 3 primary in South Carolina, the state of his birth.

Mr. Edwards had toiled in the single digits in national polls and those conducted in Iowa and New Hampshire. But he made a strong second-place showing in the caucuses.

But polls here show a minimal bounce out of Iowa for him.

The latest, conducted by Zogby International, shows Mr. Edwards finally into the double digits with 11 percent support.

Mr. Dean returned to New Hampshire yesterday after spending Wednesday at home in Vermont with his family. He continued to be dogged by his bizarre performance Monday night when he tore off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and let out a formless yell.

Yesterday, Mr. Dean kept his jacket on and spoke calmly about sober policy issues. At a news conference after two town-hall meetings, Mr. Dean said his bellowing was fueled by emotions. “In other words, I lead with my heart and not my head.”

“I didn’t ever claim to be perfect. I am passionate,” he said. “I don’t think we can beat George Bush without some intensity.”

Asked how he would regain momentum in New Hampshire, Mr. Dean shrugged and said: “All I can do is be who I am.”

In a slap at his rivals, Mr. Dean aired a new ad reminding New Hampshire voters that “other Democrats” backed Mr. Bush on the Iraq war — Mr. Kerry, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Lieberman all voted for the war resolution. It also accused those unnamed Democrats of not wanting to repeal Mr. Bush’s tax cuts.

“Saying the politically popular thing is easy, but is that what America really needs now?” an announcer says.

But his opponents are trying to take advantage of Mr. Dean’s tumble in the polls. Blood-red yard signs have popped up all across Manchester that ask, “Doubting Dean? Vote Kerry.”

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