MANCHESTER, N.H. – Three rivals for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, courting key activists Thursday night, aimed their sharpest barbs at President Bush.
"Our party has supported this president too much," said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. "I want to bring this party back to its roots."
"Unemployment is up, the stock market is down," said Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. "The future of the American dream is on the line."
The Rev. Al Sharpton said Bush has set out to reverse 50 years of social and economic gains. "We're looking at Republicans who feel that laborers don't have the right to organize, that minority group members don't have the right to participate fully in democracy," he said.
In Washington earlier Thursday, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida took a major step toward a run for the White House, filing papers to begin raising money for a full-fledged campaign.
Dean, Lieberman and Sharpton spoke to more than 500 New Hampshire Democratic activists at a fund-raising dinner designed to showcase the party's presidential candidates.
Two of the candidates referred to the disputed 2000 presidential election, a topic which still fires up activists.
Bush "is the personification of a set-aside program," said Sharpton. "In 2000, the Supreme Court set aside a whole election to make him president."
Lieberman, the party's vice presidential candidate in 2000, said: "I know how to beat George Bush. Al Gore and I did in 2000."
Dean got an ovation by blasting Bush's threat to disarm Iraq by force, calling it "a unilateral action against a country that doesn't present an immediate threat."
Sharpton said Bush was putting the nation's young at risk while giving tax breaks to wealthy friends. "We must have equal sacrifice and equal patriotism," he said.
Lieberman defended his hawkish stance on war with Iraq. "No Democrat will be elected if they have not convinced the American people they will keep them safe," he said.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun were also invited to the dinner but declined, citing schedule conflicts.
Most polls have shown Sen. John Kerry from neighboring Massachusetts with an early lead in New Hampshire, which holds its Democratic primary Jan. 27. Other candidates in the race are Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich.