DETROIT, Mich. – For all their efforts to separate themselves from the pack, the nine Democratic candidates debating Sunday night in Detroit displayed a solid unity when it came to attacking President Bush for his policy in Iraq.
"I'd say all of us up here support our troops a great deal more than the president of the United States does," said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search), who has been the most outspoken in criticizing the president.
"Right after 9/11, this administration determined to do bait and switch on the American public. President Bush said he was going to get Usama bin Laden, dead or alive. Instead, he went after Saddam Hussein. He doesn't have either one of them today," said retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark (search), the most recent entry into the contest to challenge Bush in 2004.
"What I voted for was to hold Saddam Hussein accountable but to do it right. This president has done it wrong every step of the way," said Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), who defended his support for going to war in Iraq and his opposition to the president's $87 billion supplemental to pay for continued military operations and reconstruction.
"Bush was wrong to go in in the first place. To delay coming out doesn't make it right," said Rev. Al Sharpton (search), who has said U.S. troops should withdraw from the region immediately.
The nine candidates met in Detroit's historic Fox Theatre for the second of two 90-minute debates hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Leadership Institute (search) and Fox News Channel. PBS' Gwen Ifill moderated the debate. Fox News' chief political correspondent Carl Cameron and Huel Perkins of WJBK-TV, Detroit's Fox affiliate posed questions of the Democratic nine.
"The first caucus votes are going to be 13 weeks away, the first primary votes in New Hampshire 14 weeks away. This debate is really the candidates' time to really establish themselves in the way that they want to be perceived by the voters and to trying to paint and label their candidates in a negative way," Cameron said before the debate.
In that regard, some candidates did establish themselves by refusing to oppose altogether action in Iraq. Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search), who leads polls in the earliest caucus state of Iowa, said that he supports the money for the troops because "I can't find it within myself to not vote for the money to support the troops.
"Our young men and women who are over there protecting us, dodging bullets in a very tough and difficult situation. And so, I felt the right thing to do was to do that," Gephardt said.
But Gephardt made a point to say that he agreed that the president has failed to get international aid and he criticized the president for calling people who challenge him unpatriotic.
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (search) too said he could not understand the decisions of his rivals who serve in Congress to refuse to give more money to the troops.
"I didn't duck it, I didn't avoid it, I voted to support our troops and I am proud of it," Lieberman said. "If everyone had voted the way John Kerry did, the money wouldn't have been there to support our troops."
"We blew the place up, we have to fix it back," said former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (search), who added that more aid needs to be given to soldiers both in the field and returning wounded from the fight.
About 3,000 people attended the debate. Michigan's Feb. 7 caucuses mark the first major industrial state to weigh in on the choice of who gets to take on Bush in 2004.
"Jobs, the economy, health care, education, how to get cities moving again, that's what candidates will be trying to score with here," said Detroit Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick. "This is a large manufacturing state here. This is the first of the caucuses that will be held, will be here. Our caucuses moved up, which means there will be much more participation."
"I think that with this Congressional Black Caucus debate here tonight, we're going to be able to hear these issues, we're going to debate them, and at the end of the day, we're going to make sure that the next person sent to the unemployment line is George Bush, who has given us two tax cuts for the rich that have run this economy into the ditch," Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Melvin Hollowell told Fox News. "Michigan has not elected a Republican nominee to the White House in 16 years, and we intend to make it 20."
The candidates sparred over many issues. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich (search) accused Dean of suggesting he was the only contender to oppose the war.
"I'd have to say to Dr. Dean, you said in paid TV ads that only you opposed the war in Iraq, but that's not true. Why forfeit the public trust? Why can't you just admit you made a mistake and take down the ad? I mean, you have Ambassador Braun, Mr. Sharpton, myself, we opposed the war. Why don't you take down those ads? They're not true."
Dean rebutted that the ad, the first negative ad in the campaign season, only attacks his opponents who supported the war.
On the issue of the Patriot Act, the expanding surveillance powers given to the Justice Department shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Edwards said he supported it, like most of the Senate, but Attorney General John Ashcroft had since abused those powers.
Sharpton added that the administration "wants to stifle and to stop dissent" and appealed to the crowd. "We cannot let this Justice Department have power where they can play politics with the judicial system in the name of the Patriot Act or any other act."
In regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sharpton also asked Lieberman why he refused to meet with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, even though Lieberman has said he would do anything he can to establish dialogue in the Middle East.
Lieberman responded that he did not meet with Arafat because "President Bill Clinton gave him an offer of Palestinian statehood, along with former Prime Minister Barak, that came that close to being enacted, but he turned against it and then facilitated violence."
He added that Arafat has not declared a war on terrorism.
"As long as he's there, there's not going to be a real chance for peace in the Middle East," he said, adding that he also would not negotiate with Hamas or other terrorist groups "while they're terrorists. But, you know, as a matter of faith and policy, I believe that people are capable of change."
Asked about his ability to be commander-in-chief, Dean said he's not anymore at a disadvantage than four of the last five presidents, all former governors elected to the highest office.
"I have as much foreign-policy experience as George W. Bush did when he got into office. And Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter," Dean said. "The important part of what you do as president of the United States is to have very good people, which I do, talking to me about issues and defense and foreign policy, and to use judgment and patience."
But Kerry countered that Dean wasn't being elected to the presidency because he could lead a good staff.
"I also must say, as I listen to Governor Dean, I'm not sure, if I were he, I'd want to use George Bush as a reverence for a governor becoming president without foreign-policy experience ... We're electing a president of the United States, not a staff. And we need to elect a president who has the judgment to do this," he said.
On domestic issues, the candidates were less vehement as well as less specific in their criticisms, though they spoke to issues that reached the heart of the residents of Detroit, one of the nation's largest manufacturing bases.
Braun said she wanted to reform the manufacturing base in part by reforming health care to take the financial pressure off businesses by providing a single payer system that would give coverage to all Americans. Gephardt repeated that he would not sign any free trade agreement that does not provide protections for U.S. laborers and the environment.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search) said he wanted to upgrade education in poor communities by providing incentives for teachers who go to underserved schools. Lieberman said he wanted to reform the prison system by finding alternatives to prosecuting drug offenders.
Kucinich said he would cancel U.S. participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization.
Dean said he wanted to balance the budget in five years, but would promise not to touch Social Security or Medicare. He added that he wanted to add $87 billion to Medicaid, and would do so by repealing the president's tax cuts.
Kerry shot back that by repealing all of the tax cuts, Dean would repeal child tax credits as well as raise the 10 percent bottom marginal income tax rate. He also wondered aloud which entitlement programs Dean would be willing to dip into, whether it be veterans' pensions, food stamps or social disability funding.
The panelists also challenged the candidates on several issues that have brought about questions on their capacity to lead -- Clark was asked why he was fired from his job as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe after the Kosovo War. Clark called it "McCarthyism" at the Pentagon, and said some other military leaders objected to his approach of trying diplomacy before force.
Braun was asked about her relationship with the former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha for which she was investigated and later cleared. She replied that as the only black senator in the Congress, it was her goal to meet with as many African leaders as possible.
"My reputation and my record of integrity in office remains unscarred. And I am standing here before the American people offering my services, someone who knows her way around the world," she added.
The candidates also were asked a series of scathing questions they termed conventional wisdom -- asking the nine to reply to questions about their ability to be president.
Michigan has historically been a swing state and analysts say its 17 electoral votes will be closely guarded by voters wanting to make sure the candidates speak to their concerns.
"In the last half century, we have voted for the GOP [presidential candidate] seven times and we have voted for Democrats six times," said Detroit News Lansing Bureau Chief Charlie Cain. "For a Democrat to win the White House, the road must include a Michigan victory."
More than 80 percent of Detroit's population is black, and the campaigns are well aware that while victories in Iowa and New Hampshire go a long way in setting the tone, major industrial states in the Midwest -- like Michigan -- are critically important to a successful primary run.
The African-American vote is still up for grabs among the Democratic candidates, many of whom took lead time before Sunday's debate to visit a black church -- or several -- in Detroit.
"I've been working for you. Everybody else is going to be drive-by candidates. You all know about drive-by shootings, you all have got some drive-by campaigning going on in Detroit today," Sharpton said.
"There are too many white politicians that think that the best way to talk about race is to come to an African-American church. I think white politicians need to speak to white audiences about race because you can't learn anything from me about race that you don't already know," Dean told congregants at Fellowship Chapel.
Dean has been leading most of the polls, surging ahead of his rivals in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire, though he has fallen behind Gephardt in Iowa. Dean also leads the other contenders in Michigan -- Edwards, Lieberman, Kerry and Clark.
But Clark is seen by many as the Democratic candidate who could actually give Bush a hard time. On paper, Clark has all the ingredients of a force to be reckoned with -- a four-star general, a combat veteran, a war hero and a Rhodes scholar. But with a late entry into the race, Clark's campaign appears to be sputtering in key primary states like New Hampshire, where he was polling around 6 percent recently compared to Dean's 40 percent and Kerry's 17 percent, according to one survey.
Cain said that Clark, who is still behind in Michigan though by not nearly as much as in New Hampshire polls, could still come from behind, particularly because he doesn't have a voting record to defend.
"In Michigan, it's clearly fluid, and among the top tier are five candidates," Cain said.
To that end, the candidates appealed to Detroit's voters while on the bully pulpits in local churches. Clark visited Oak Grove AME Church, where he applauded the sermon and cited Sunday's bombing of Al Rashid hotel in Baghdad as an example of how Bush's policies in Iraq have failed.
"It's a strategic distraction for us, and it's a problem for us," Clark said.
"Our sons and daughters half a world away put their lives at risk every single day with no plan in sight. Is this our America? No, we have work to do," Edwards said.
Fox News' Kelly Wright and Jeff Golblatt contributed to this report.