DETROIT, Mich. – Howard Dean (search) got off lightly from opponents seeking to bring down the frontrunner in the race to challenge President Bush in 2004, analysts said of Sunday night's Democratic candidate debate.
"Howard Dean, the big winner. Every debate that goes by in which no one lays a glove on Howard Dean is a huge victory for Howard Dean. He's the frontrunner," said Fox News contributor and Weekly Standard publisher Bill Kristol. "It mystifies me why the other candidates don't see the urgency in taking down Howard Dean."
"I think without a doubt it was all about Dean," said National Public Radio national correspondent and Fox News contributor Juan Williams. "All the Democrats, rather than going after Dean, really were emulating Dean and saying we have to have a stronger message of attacking on the war."
Indeed, for the majority of the Democratic debate hosted Sunday night by the Congressional Black Caucus Leadership Institute (search) and Fox News, the candidates collectively attacked President Bush, primarily on his policy in Iraq, rather than tried to separate themselves from the pack.
"I'd say all of us up here support our troops a great deal more than the president of the United States does," said Dean, the former Vermont governor and most outspoken presidential critic.
"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).
"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 there.
"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 advocated the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region.
Of course, not everyone was willing to walk lockstep entirely on the issues of Iraq. Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search), who leads polls in the earliest caucus state of Iowa, said that he supports funding for Iraq because "I can't find it within myself to not vote for the money to support the troops.
"Our young men and women 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 had failed to get international aid and criticized Bush for calling people who challenge him unpatriotic.
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (search) also 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.
The candidates also sought to show some distinctions among themselves and their rivals when it came to their leadership skills.
Defending his ability to be commander-in-chief, Dean said he was 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, who invoked his military background to prove his credentials on Iraq, countered that Dean wasn't being elected to the presidency because he could lead a good staff.
"As I listen to Governor Dean, I'm not sure, if I were he, I'd want to use George Bush as a reference 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.
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich (search), who has proposed a Cabinet-level Department of Peace to look for alternative means of conflict resolution, 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 advertisement, the first negative ad in the campaign season, only attacks his opponents who supported the war.
Dean also 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 entirety of Bush'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.
"Amongst the candidates, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman really seemed to be going after Howard Dean and to a lesser extent Wes Clark a lot tonight," said Fox News chief political correspondent Carl Cameron, a panelist in Sunday night's debate. WJBK-TV anchor Huel Perkins also appeared on the panel. PBS' Gwen Ifill moderated the debate.
"For now Howard Dean remains the guy at the top of the tier and the one who is taking all of the incoming from John Kerry, and to a lesser extent John Edwards and Joe Lieberman for what they say is inconsistency and a lack of preparedness for the commander-in-chief's post," Cameron said.
A packed house of 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."
Michigan has historically been a swing state, and analysts said 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 Charlie Cain, Detroit News' Lansing bureau chief. "For a Democrat to win the White House, the road must include a Michigan victory."
Dean has been leading most of the polls, including the latest in Michigan, but Clark is seen by many as an upstart latecomer -- a four-star general, a combat veteran, a war hero and a Rhodes scholar -- who has the ingredients to give Bush a run for his money. However, as a late entry into the race, Clark's campaign appears to be sputtering in key primary states like New Hampshire, where he was polling well below Dean, Kerry and others.
Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (search), chairwoman of the CBCI's debate committee and mother of Mayor Kilpatrick, said that Dean and Clark are getting the attention because they are not part of the current political structure.
"The country is in shambles, a lot of things need to happen, and a lot of people feel that those candidates who are now a part of the House or Senate haven't done all they can do to help the country. So that's why I really believe that both Dean and Wesley Clark are faring better right now," Kilpatrick said.
She added that now that the CBCI-sponsored debates are complete, she is close to making up her mind about whom to support. Though she would not indicate in which direction she's leaning, Kilpatrick said that she is still hoping for some candidates to make a splash.
"There were a couple here who I think tried to distinguish themselves a little bit. I think over the next few months, you'll see a couple rise to the top, and we're waiting for that," she said. "I personally have not selected because ... I was waiting to get out of Michigan ... but I am ready to get in now."
The panelists did try to make a splash on several issues besides Iraq. 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."
Regarding 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 a two-state solution 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."
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.
Kristol said that on domestic issues, once again the establishment candidates -- Kerry, Gephardt, Lieberman and Edwards -- "have not internalized that Dean is clobbering them."
"Gephardt barely mentioned Medicare, which is the issue he had been doing some damage to Dean on," Kristol said. "Kerry once mentioned that Dean would raise middle-class taxes, didn't come back to it, ended up with kind of a close on gun control, where it looked like he was setting up a contrast to Dean, who is not a gun control guy, but then he never mentioend Dean in the close. They are arguing with each other, they are presenting themselves to the people, but Dean is just coasting along, way ahead, I think."
Fox News' Kelly Wright and Jeff Goldblatt contributed to this report.