Published September 10, 2003
WASHINGTON – Analysts reviewing Tuesday night's debate say no strong winner emerged among the nine Democratic presidential candidates, but they all agreed on one person to pick on -- President Bush.
Not wanting to play the reality show game of eliminating one candidate per debate, the Democrats instead took out their frustrations on the president, criticizing him on everything from Iraq to civil liberties to underfunded education initiatives.
The Democrats called Bush nearly every name in the book -- "a miserable failure," an "abomination," a "gang leader" and a "bully." He was described as fiscally irresponsible and said to be deliberately misleading the country in the war on terror.
Party supporters said that while there may have been no clear-cut winner, the lively 90-minute debate showed that the party is alive and kicking.
"It was a very healthy debate for the Democratic party," said Steve Ricchetti, former Clinton deputy chief of staff (search), who added that the candidates gave a "very strong and healthy performance."
"I think it was the liveliest debate I've seen so far, and opens up the door for more opportunities [for them] to tell the American public how they will deal with issues," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. (search), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (search), whose leadership institute co-sponsored the debate with Fox News Channel.
Cummings added that the candidates attacked one another a lot less than he expected they would, and kept the focus on the issues that matter.
"I think the American people heard these candidates not so much beat up on each other ... but talk about what their vision is for America and their plan on these issues," Cummings said.
But for all the attacks on Bush, Republicans say they still aren't feeling the pressure.
"The Democrats really don't have anything affirmative to say. They complain about everything and they hope for the worst," GOP strategist Ed Rogers told Fox News.
Saying that the Democrats' remarks were "contrived" and "snide," Rogers said Bush actually came out the winner of Tuesday night's debate.
"It's going to be a hard time for any of these guys to be able to articulate a message, to have the stature and to have the credibility to take on George Bush in the fall, based on what I saw last night," he said.
The president has withheld comment about his rivals, allowing the Republican National Committee and members of Congress to do the counter attacks. But the White House is "not frightened so far by these attacks at this point," said Fred Barnes, Weekly Standard editor and co-host of Fox News' Beltway Boys.
But it's still early in the political season, and when the candidates begin to pound on the issues that are near and dear to the president, he may find himself having to make stronger cases for his objectives.
In Tuesday night's debate, for instance, the candidates assailed Bush for not seeking international assistance in Iraq from the United Nations at an earlier date.
On Sunday, Bush asked Congress for $87 billion for the next fiscal year, $66 billion for military operations and $21 billion for reconstruction. U.S. officials say they are going to seek another $40 billion for reconstruction from the international community as well as more troops on the ground.
The Democratic hopefuls said they were glad that the president finally came around to seeking international aid, but said he should have done it sooner.
"I will support whatever is required to protect our brave men and women in Iraq. I will not support a dime to protect the profits of Halliburton in Iraq," said Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who opposed the war in Iraq and called it a "distraction" from the war on terror in Afghanistan, Yemen and other places.
Graham and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search) took the question of funding as an opportunity to slam the administration, which they accuse of offering "no-bid contracts" to their friends, including Halliburton, the energy services company formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney.
This issue also gave the candidates the opportunity to attack the president on the economy.
"Well, I am glad the president finally found an economic development program -- I am just sad it is in Baghdad," said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who added that the U.S. must cede humanitarian and civilian authority to U.N. members.
While support for U.S. troops abroad was nearly universal, the attacks on Bush left little room for any of the candidates to stand out on how they would deal with Iraq and the war on terror, said some analysts.
"Right now, most of the Democratic candidates feel perfectly happy to take shots at the president. That's fine, it's still early in the primary process ... but sooner or later, they're going to have to figure out ways to point out distinctions between one another," said Fox News Sunday host Tony Snow.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut earned credit as the only candidate who was willing to attack his opponents. He went after front-runner Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, for remarks he made suggesting that the United States should not take sides in the issue between Palestinians and Israelis, and that Israel should dismantle settlements in disputed territories.
Dean said his comments have been misinterpreted, and that what he meant was that to be a credible negotiator, the U.S. has to be trusted by both sides, and must not ignore the conflict the way Bush did in the first 18 months of his term.
But Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, said Dean was suggesting that as president, he would change U.S. policy.
"Howard Dean's statements break a 50-year record in which presidents, Republican and Democrats, members of Congress of both parties have supported our relationship with Israel based on shared values and common strategic interests," Lieberman said.
"Israel is the one country in the region that we can rely on today, tomorrow, 10, 50 years from now to stand with America in a time of crisis," Lieberman said. "We do not gain strength as a negotiator if we compromise our support of Israel."
Barnes and Morton Kondracke, executive editor of Roll Call and the other Beltway Boy, evaluated all the candidates on their standing and agreed that while some pulled their weight, others still will have a long way to go if they want to stand a chance of competing in next year's primaries.
Barnes called Al Sharpton "funny" and Dean "testy," but described Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, who carefully articulated the difference between his early support for the war in Iraq and his disillusionment with the way it has been conducted since, "awake" and "strong."
Both agreed that Edwards, Kerry and Graham lacked the luster they needed to make a case for their candidacies.
Of Graham, Kondracke said: "I think has slipped back to the same tier as [former Illinois Sen.] Carol Moseley Braun and [Ohio Rep.] Dennis Kucinich. One wonders where exactly John Edwards is."
But Graham's campaign press secretary said his boss "knocked it out of the park." Graham won considerable applause from the audience at Morgan State University, a traditionally black university, by saying he voted against the war in Iraq, would be hesitant to spend funds on reconstruction there and believes that Bush knew that he did not have enough evidence to justify war.
"Even if we find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which we haven't … Bob Graham voted against the war because it wasn't the right war against the right enemy," said Jamal Simmons, who added that the United States has alienated itself when it desperately needs allies to help fight the war on terror.
"People don't want to pick up the tab after you didn't invite them to the table to eat," Simmons said.
Since it's still a long way to go before the eventual Democratic nominee debates the president, analysts say they expect the focus of the candidates to remain on Bush for now.
"George Bush made it very clear [Iraq] is going to be an ongoing thing. [The Democrats] are going to inherit it if they become president," Cummings said. "They also understand many Americans are a looking at them saying, 'Wait a minute, we don't have a paycheck ... what are you going to do about it?'"
Fox News' Liza Porteus contributed to this report.