Four Democratic presidential candidates clashed over war with Iraq before a labor audience in Iowa yesterday, highlighting sharp divisions within the party over whether President Bush should launch military action without the support of a broad international coalition.
The four candidates, however, found themselves in strong agreement on domestic and economic policies as they pummeled the president as out of touch with average Americans, hostile to the interests of workers and unions and protective of big corporations and special interests.
The four candidates -- Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), former Vermont governor Howard Dean and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio), the newest entry in the growing field of candidates -- appeared before the Iowa Federation of Labor just outside Des Moines.
Before they had a chance to speak, federation President Mark Smith set the tone with an antiwar message that asked why the Bush administration is ready to spend "billions to retire Saddam Hussein," Iraq's president, but not to protect the retirement security of American workers. "We wonder: What's the hurry to go to war?" Smith said.
By the luck of the draw, the first two candidates to speak agreed with Smith. Dean, who has sought to use his antiwar position to fire up liberal activists in Iowa, not only reminded the audience of his opposition, but also sought to criticize unnamed rivals he said were trying to straddle the issue for political gain.
Praising Lieberman as someone who "stuck to his guns" in support of war, Dean said, "What we can't have is somebody who says to you in Iowa the Iraq war is bad, goes back and votes in favor of the resolution and then comes back and tells you at your county dinners why it's not a good thing."
That appeared to be a slap at Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who is recovering from prostate surgery and was not able to attend the forum. Kerry has been criticized for backing the resolution after speaking out strongly against the administration's willingness to go it alone against Iraq.
But his advisers say Dean, too, has tried to have it both ways by voicing opposition to the war while saying he would favor unilateral action if it were proven that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that represented an imminent threat to the United States.
Kucinich, who said he will establish his presidential campaign committee today, noted that he not only voted against the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to go to war without U.N. approval, but also helped lead the opposition to that measure.
"The facts are these," he said. "Iraq was not responsible for 9/11 or al Qaeda's role in 9/11 or the anthrax attacks on our country. . . . Inspections should continue. They worked before, they can work again. . . . This war is wrong."
Edwards called Hussein "a serious threat" who "must be disarmed" with military force if necessary. "It is a belief that is a principled belief for me," he said.
From there, however, he shifted gears and denounced Bush's general approach to foreign policy. "The problem is he has no vision," Edwards said. "He has no notion of what to do about the underlying problems, the underlying disease. If he's allowed to continue on this course, we will live in a world where generation after generation of people hate us."
Lieberman offered a strong defense of his position in favor of acting to disarm Hussein, noting that he has followed a consistent policy since the Persian Gulf War in 1991. "I'm not going to oppose a policy I've supported for 12 years just because the person who happens to be the commander in chief today is a Republican," he said.
On the economy, all four candidates harshly attacked Bush's tax cuts and other domestic policies, with Lieberman charging that the administration "has bowed to special interests and extreme ideologues" at the expense of working Americans.
JOSEPH I. LIEBERMAN
DENNIS J. KUCINICH