WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential candidates welcomed news Sunday of Saddam Hussein's capture, saying the arrest of Iraq's former dictator was a great day for U.S. soldiers, the people of Iraq and the world.
But his arrest robbed the candidates of a potent symbol of President Bush's failings in the fight against terrorism and underscored a divide in the party between pro- and anti-war Democrats.
Bush scored an immediate and enormous political boost from Saddam's arrest.
Knowing that, some of the Democrats who want to defeat him recalibrated their criticism of Bush's Iraq policy. They reserved their sharpest comments for Howard Dean (search), who owes his front-runner status largely to his opposition to the war.
"I supported this effort in Iraq without regard for the political consequences because it was the right thing to do. I still feel that way now and today is a major step toward stabilizing Iraq and building a new democracy," Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) said in a statement.
Saddam's capture also was good news for Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, John Kerry (search) of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina. Dean has criticized them all for supporting the war, and Gephardt in particular for helping write the congressional resolution that allowed Bush to use force in Iraq.
Dean shifted his focus to coalition building in Iraq.
"I think this is an opportunity for us, an opportunity for us to turn the American occupation of Iraq into an international reconstruction effort," Dean said in West Palm Beach, Fla.
He deflected questions about the Democratic presidential race. "President Bush deserves a day of celebration," Dean said. "We have our policy differences but we won't be discussing those today."
Kerry and Lieberman sought to remind voters of their support for Bush's war resolution, even as they criticized the president anew for not reaching out to allies.
"I think if we had more troops involved, more countries involved, we might have less people lost and we might have done it sooner," Kerry said in Moline, Iowa.
He and Lieberman also suggested Dean had been soft on Saddam, noting Dean's statement that Iraq would "probably" be better off without Saddam.
Lieberman said the arrest makes clear the choice Democrats face next year.
"If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today, not in prison, and the world would be a more dangerous place," Lieberman said. "I consistently supported Saddam's removal for the past decade, and am prepared to do what it takes to win the war on terrorism at home and abroad."
Added Kerry: "I guess he supposes it's a good thing to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Well, I knew it was a good thing on that day, day one."
Other candidates praised U.S. troops and urged their return home.
Former Gen. Wesley Clark said Saddam's arrest, Saturday night in a town several miles from his hometown of Tikrit, could help squelch the postwar violence.
"I hope this will see a diminishing in the violence against American soldiers in Iraq," Clark said as he arrived in the Netherlands. Clark was on his way to The Hague, to testify in the war crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
Edwards said he wants greater international involvement in Iraq.
"I hope President Bush will use this opportunity to chart a course in Iraq that will bring in our allies in a meaningful way to achieve a democratic and peaceful Iraq," Edwards said.
But while the candidates agreed that the news was good, Carol Moseley Braun said it "does not change the fact that our troops remain in harm's way and we are no closer to bringing them home."
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton said the United States must now focus on pulling out. Saddam's arrest "is all the more reason this war should come to an immediate end," Sharpton said in New York City.