NEW YORK – The newest member to join the Democratic race for the presidential nomination showed he can keep up with his more polished rivals, taking on them as well as President Bush in an economic debate Thursday in which he demonstrated one-liners worthy of a seasoned professional.
"I've got a better job plan in eight days than George Bush had in three years," said retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark (search), who joined the race last week after months of speculation.
With new poll numbers showing Democrats with an even shot at the presidency, the 10 candidates vying for the party's presidential nomination all roundly denounced Bush's handling of the economy.
"If George Bush rebuilds Iraq the way he rebuilds the United States, they're going to lose 3 million jobs over the course of the next three years," said Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search).
Candidates attending the latest in a series of debates were asked right off the bat whether they would fund Bush's $87 billion request to pay for reconstruction and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kerry said if it were to be passed, it should be paid for with a repeal of tax cuts passed by Congress earlier this year and in 2001.
Kerry added that he wants some other conditions met and has not decided whether he will vote for the supplemental funding for Iraq when it reaches Senate consideration.
"I believe the $87 billion ought to come from the excessive and extraordinary tax cuts that this president foisted upon us that mainly went to people like Ken Lay, who ran Enron," said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search).
Thursday's debate in New York City was an opportunity for Clark, a political novice, to demonstrate his rhetorical skills and begin closing the distance he must cover to catch the front-runners in both money and publicity.
It also gave him an opportunity to answer questions from Kerry and Dean, who have questioned Clark's party loyalty since he had voted for both Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Dean quickly made what he considered a distinction between himself and Clark.
"I'm not a new entrant to the Democratic Party, I have been here a long time," Dean said.
But New York activist Al Sharpton came to Clark's aid, turning it into a swipe at less liberal rivals.
"It's better to be a new Democrat that's a real Democrat than a lot of old Democrats up here who have been acting like Republicans," he said.
Apparently expecting the charges, Clark had a ready response.
"When I looked at this country, and which way we're headed, I knew that I needed to speak out, and when I needed to speak out, there was only one party to come to," he said.
Aides say Clark's mission was to show he has a broader portfolio than national security and that his party loyalty and credentials are intact. But as the debate was going on, word circulated that in April 2001, Clark spoke to a Republican organization very favorably about past Republican presidents.
The debate, hosted by the Wall Street Journal and CNBC television, took place at Pace University in downtown Manhattan near Wall Street.
The two-hour forum started right at the close of the stock-trading day and gave the business community a chance to hear the Democratic contenders' visions of how to push a slowly recovering economy into high gear.
Democrats see a growing opportunity to regain the White House 14 months from now.
Unemployment is still hovering above 6 percent, and is higher than it has been during other economic recoveries. Since Bush took office, 3 million payroll jobs, particularly in manufacturing, have been lost and the federal government has gone into deficit to the tune of $455 billion for this year.
A Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll released Thursday showed that among 900 voters surveyed nationwide, 39 percent would vote for Bush, 39 percent would vote for an unnamed Democratic candidate and 22 percent were undecided.
A Battleground 2004 poll released Thursday also showed voters evenly divided on whether to elect Bush or give another candidate a shot.
"I think President Bush is fairly vulnerable, so I think we're going to see this afternoon the Democratic candidates really coming out and going after him and trying to distinguish themselves from one another," Ira Carnahan of Forbes magazine told Fox News.
Among Democratic voters in the Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll, 20 percent said they preferred Clark, compared to 13 percent for Dean and 10 percent for Kerry. The rest of the candidates registered in single digits.
In that same poll, however, Dean topped the list of candidates perceived as clearly presenting his vision for America.
State polls in Iowa and New Hampshire — the critical first states in the primary/caucus cycle — showed Clark in single digits, far behind Dean, Kerry and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt.
The economy is not considered Clark's strong suit, being a former four-star general. By most accounts, he held his own, though he did not offer many specifics but showed he found himself comfortable facing those questions and dealing with the issues.
"Wesley Clark escaped the venom of the rest of the candidates," said Dan Glickman, a former Democratic congressman from Kansas and now director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School.
"I don't know if they're nervous about him or if his poll numbers are so high they're afraid to attack him."
By most counts, Dean is the candidate who found himself the subject of several attacks.
"The real debate was between Dean and Kerry and Gephardt, the rest were placeholders," said Democratic strategist Jim Duffy.
Gephardt and Dean argue that the entire Bush tax cut needs to be repealed to cover health care expenses. Dean, famed in Vermont as a budget-balancer, would also use the money to close the growing federal deficit.
Kerry advocates restoring taxes only on wealthy Americans, saying that to repeal the entire package would hurt middle-income workers. Clark has said he would repeal $100 million in tax cuts and hand it out as homeland security funds, aid to the states and for economic stimulus.
"If Gov. Dean has his way, and Congressman Gephardt, they're going to pay $3,000 more in additional taxes," Kerry said of middle-income earners.
"I find it somewhat surprising that some folks are supporting some of the Bush tax cuts. They are a mistake. The middle class never got a tax cut for us to defend. The college tuitions went up, their property taxes went up, fire and police and first responder services are going down and local people are having to pay for that," Dean said.
Dean wrongly suggested that his rivals voted for the Bush tax cut. None did. On jobs and trade, Dean went on the offense, accusing Kerry of supporting international trade deals that could cost America jobs.
"Sen. Kerry is insensitive to the plight of the workers. I am not insensitive to the jobs, I am desperately concerned about those jobs, but you don't fix them by pandering to people and telling them you're going to shut the door. You have to grow jobs," Dean said.
Gephardt ripped into Dean for saying Social Security and Medicare need reform over the years and for supporting some of the GOP agenda in the 1990s.
"You have been saying for many months that you're the head of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. I think you're just winging it," Gephardt said.
The other major candidates would repeal portions of Bush's tax cuts that favor people who earn more than $200,000 a year. They would leave in place other Bush cuts such as tax credits for parents.
Whoever's tax-cutting strategy appeals most could find himself in favor with voters. The debate sponsors released a poll Thursday suggesting that 56 percent of Americans back cancellation of tax cuts for upper-income Americans to help pay for the reconstruction of Iraq.
Bush's political team plans to portray any Democratic nominee as a tax-raiser, a strategy Republicans used successfully in 1984 against Walter Mondale — the last Democratic presidential candidate to bluntly tell voters he would raise taxes.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and Sharon Kehnemui and The Associated Press contributed to this report.