MANCHESTER, N.H. – The seven Democratic contenders for the nomination to take on President Bush spent their last public debate before the New Hampshire primary demonstrating a united front -- all framing themselves as the best chance to beat Bush in November.
"This president has created an economy that feeds the special interests and powerful, and corporate power, and he has not helped the American worker advance their cause and I will," said Sen. John Kerry (search), the front-runner heading into Tuesday's primary.
"I think we ought to get rid of the whole Bush tax cut and here's why -- there was no middle-class tax cut, 60 percent of us got $304," said Howard Dean (search). "Someone has to stand up and say, 'We can't have everything, we can't have tax cuts, pay for health care, pay for No Child Left Behind and pay for having defense.'"
"President Bush said to someone that the Democrat he thought would give him the toughest fight for re-election was Joe Lieberman (search). Incidentally, this is an opinion on which I agree with President Bush," Sen. Joseph Lieberman said.
"I think the reason is that the Republicans can't run their normal playbook on me that they try to run on Democratic candidates. They can't say I flip-flop because I don't. They can't say I'm weak on defense because I'm not. They can't say I'm weak on values because I'm not. They can't say I'm a big taxer and a big spender."
Thursday's debate was being closely watched by Democratic voters, political pundits and curiosity-seekers. The debate could be a make-or-break event for Dean, the former Vermont governor; retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark (search), who has been surging in New Hampshire; and Sen. John Edwards, who came in a surprising second place in the Iowa caucuses on Monday.
"I think if you're looking for an upset, look toward John Edwards ... there still could be a late break," said Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review.
Dean has seen his poll numbers spiral downward quickly and Clark's chances of getting one of the tickets out of New Hampshire could hinge on his performance in the debate, sponsored by Fox News Channel.
One of the issues that has marred Clark's campaign, starting with his late entry into the race, are questions about his commitment to the Democratic Party. Clark, who has argued that his military background makes him the most credible candidate against Bush, defended his membership in the party.
"When I got out of the military, I looked at both parties. I'm pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-environment, pro-labor. I was either going to be the loneliest Republican in America or I was going to be a happy Democrat," Clark said.
"I think what matters in this party is the clarity of your ideas, the strength of your convictions and your ability to communicate. The Democratic Party is a party of ideas. It's a party as broad as a Montana sky," he said. "We welcome everybody into this party, and we care about people. That's why I'm a Democrat. That's why I want to be president: to help people."
According to a Fox News New Hampshire Primary Tracking Poll released Thursday evening, Kerry, still riding the "Iowa bounce" from his caucus victory in the Hawkeye State, is leading the race to win the New Hampshire primary. Dean continues to drop in the eyes of Granite State Democrats, according to the poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center (search).
Dean has dropped 7 percentage points in the last three days while Kerry has gained 6 percentage points. There was a potential sampling error of 4.4 percentage points.
Dean's slide has been attributed to the primal scream he bellowed Monday night after the Iowa caucuses showed him in a distant and disappointing third place. The outburst has many people questioning whether Dean has the temperament and mental fortitude to be president.
"Not only are we going to New Hampshire ... we're going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, and we're going to California and Texas and New York," he yelled. "And we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan. And then we're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House. YEAHHHH!!!"
In a brief aside, apparently to get the question out of the way, panelist Peter Jennings asked Dean in his first response to comment on his Monday night squeal. A scratchy-throated Dean, who blamed his voice on a cold and not the yell, said he kicked it up a few notches on Monday night in order to pay respects to the workers who came to Iowa to campaign for him.
"We had had a little fun in Iowa. I thought I owed it to the 3,500 kids who came out and worked for us, and sure I would have liked to have done a little better, but I congratulate John Kerry and John Edwards (search) on great campaigns," he said.
But one New Hampshire tracking poll to be released Friday shows Dean has slipped as far as third place, many believe as a result of Monday's behavior.
The pollster, who requested anonymity, told Fox News: "Dean is done, he shot himself in the foot with his scream and has not done anything to stop the bleeding. Dean is going on ['The Late Show With David] Letterman' next? He's crazy."
Late-night talk shows have used the impassioned speech for comic relief, and remixes of the speech featuring the rock band Guns 'N Roses and house music are flying around the Internet at warp speed.
The last candidate to appear on Letterman -- before the Iowa caucuses -- was Rep. Dick Gephardt. The day after the caucuses, Gephardt dropped out of the race.
But candidate Al Sharpton (search), who did not register on the Iowa caucuses scale, told Dean not to worry about his outburst.
"If I had gotten 18 percent in the Iowa caucuses, I would have been hootin' and hollerin'," Sharpton said.
Hitting All the Marks
Back to policy issues, the candidates were asked a variety of questions on the war on terror, health care, the Federal Reserve board and a range of other issues.
"I will never start a war or conduct a war because we want to, I will go to war because we have to," Kerry said, adding that Bush has let down veterans deserving health care and disability benefits.
"It's all well and good to criticize him, but that's just words," said Edwards, who explained that he opposed the $87 billion supplemental to pay for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan not because he doesn't support the troops, but because the message had to be sent that the president could not just roll over the Congress.
Lieberman said he would examine any future supplemental requests for outfitting troops on the ground in Iraq, but he added, "When it comes to supporting our troops in battle, I will never say no."
Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (search) have taken the most pacifist approach to the war on terror, with Kucinich saying that he would not only seek more help from the United Nations in Iraq, but would see to it that the "United States disavow that it has any interest in Iraqi oil," would disavow any interest in privatization contracts and would fund U.N. peacekeeping missions, pay for damages and provide "reparations for innocent non-combatant civilians."
Sharpton said his "doctrine of foreign policy" would be to support emerging democratic nations and those that are underdeveloped.
"We don't need to only talk about a military presence, we need to talk about a humanitarian presence, a development presence," he said.
Foreign policy wasn't the only area where the candidates disputed Bush. All the candidates support some form of benefits for gay partners, though many of the candidates say they don't support gay marriage, expected to be a major social issue in the debate leading to the general election.
All the candidates, however, disagree with Bush, who said in his State of the Union address on Tuesday that he would consider a constitutional amendment to enforce a definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
"I am completely opposed to the constitutional amendment, I think it's wrong and unnecessary," said Edwards, who opposes gay marriage but believes civil unions should be determined on the state level.
"It's a complicated, complicated issue. We chose not to do gay marriage. We chose to do civil unions. I think that position, actually, is very similar to Dick Cheney's, who thinks every state ought to be able to do what they want," said Dean, who signed Vermont's civil unions bill into law in 2000.
But Sharpton, who does support gay marriage, likened state rules on gay marriage to civil rights violations of the past.
"I am unilaterally opposed to any civil or human right being left to states' rights. That is a dangerous precedent. I think the federal government has the obligation to protect all citizens on a federal level. And if we start going back to states' rights, we're going back to pre-Civil War days, and I think that that, in its nature, is wrong," he said.
The candidates also tried to expand their positions on a variety of other issues.
Lieberman said he would support legalizing importation of drugs from other countries, like Canada, where price controls keep costs of prescription drugs lower than they are in the United States.
On homeland security issues, Clark said that he would revisit the Patriot Act from top to bottom.
"What we would do is suspend all the portions of the Patriot Act that have to do with search and seizure: sneak-and-peek searches; library records; and so on," he said. "And then, bring the whole act back into the Congress. Lay it out. Ask former Attorney General John Ashcroft to come and testify on his use and abuse of the Patriot Act.
"We're going to put together the right kind of authorities for law enforcement to keep us safe, but, we cannot win the war on terror by giving up the very freedoms we're fighting to protect," Clark said.
The candidates appeared to refrain from engaging one another, especially using the negative tones that besieged the campaigns before the Iowa caucuses.
Of the 489 likely New Hampshire primary voters who were interviewed from Jan. 19-21 in the pre-debate Fox News poll, 30 percent of likely Democratic primary voters support Kerry, 25 percent support Dean, 19 percent Clark, 8 percent Edwards, 7 percent Lieberman, 3 percent support Kucinich and 7 percent remain undecided.
An earlier Boston Herald poll of New Hampshire voters showed Kerry with 31 percent to Dean's 21 percent, while Clark had 16 percent. Edwards garnered 11 percent and Lieberman 4 percent.
A previous Fox News New Hampshire tracking poll taken from Jan. 18-20 showed Kerry and Dean in a virtual dead heat.
Fox News' Carl Cameron, Major Garrett and Liza Porteus contributed to this report.