WASHINGTON – Democratic candidates for president don't all agree on how to handle the possibility of war with Iraq, but at least they're talking about it.
Their failure to speak with a coherent voice on foreign policy cost them in the 2002 elections, voters say.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and the Rev. Al Sharpton have been the most outspoken against a war on Iraq, while Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt have been the most firm supporters. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards are somewhere in the middle.
"What's important is they've finally found their voices and are speaking up," said political analyst Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. "Democrats can't succeed in presidential politics without engaging in national security issues in a serious way. There are signs that they have learned from the 2002 elections."
Democratic voters in early 2004 states like Iowa and New Hampshire are more likely to oppose war than the electorate generally, analysts say, and Democratic primary voters in the South are more liberal than they used to be.
Dean likes to point out that he's the only candidate with previous experience in government who has opposed the war with Iraq from the start. Sharpton has no government experience.
The four members of Congress all supported a resolution giving President Bush the authority to use military force against Iraq if necessary.
"I don't mind somebody who gives the green light and then defends it," Dean said in a phone interview Wednesday. He said he's "concerned with the candidates who gave the green light" and now pretend they don't back the president's Iraq policy.
Sharpton said Wednesday in a phone interview: "I am unequivocally opposed to the war. I heard nothing last night that would soften my view; in fact, it hardened it."
He challenged other candidates to call on the president "to present the evidence or say they were wrong to give him the authority." Sharpton said he'll be "putting pressure on my opponents who gave him the Senate sanction."
The two clear-cut hawks on the issue are Lieberman, who has consistently said he supports military action against Iraq, and Gephardt, who co-authored the House resolution on force.
As he left a Wednesday afternoon meeting with centrist House Democrats, Lieberman told reporters Saddam Hussein is a "ticking time bomb," adding that he was encouraged by Bush's remarks in the State of the Union address.
"Last night he made the case quite effectively," Lieberman said.
Gephardt said Tuesday night: "No one wants to go to war. However, we must secure the removal of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, diplomatically if we can, militarily if we must.
Kerry and Edwards are closer to the middle on Iraq.
Edwards, who also attended the Wednesday meeting of centrist Democrats, said the president has begun to build a stronger case for military action in Iraq, but it may be too late. Bush must do a better job to win support of the American people and other nations, he said.
"The president's long-term foreign policy is riddled with problems," Edwards said.
After Bush's speech, Kerry repeated his argument that the president is practicing "blustering unilateralism."
Bush "talked about holding Saddam Hussein accountable, but has too often ignored opportunities to unify the world against this brutal dictator," Kerry said.
Kerry has spoken out against a "rush to war" while saying it is critical to make sure Iraq disarms, stressing that it is Saddam's burden to follow U.N. mandates. Kerry aides say he's been consistent in supporting the goal of disarming Iraq, but critical of the Bush administration's approach.
Iraq is "a good issue to watch to see if they're shifting around," said American University political scientist James Thurber. Dean and Sharpton "have more freedom to state positions that are pretty far to the left," he said.
"There will be heat for Kerry and Edwards, who are trying to stay in the middle," Thurber said, "which is where a lot of the voters are."