WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential candidates have set their sights on President Bush for his State of the Union charge — now attributed to fraudulent intelligence — that Iraq sought nuclear weapons material from Africa.
"The president knew, or had every opportunity to know, that this information was false. Therefore, it was very inappropriate and deceitful to include that in a State of the Union speech," said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., one of six contenders who spoke at the NAACP convention in Miami on Monday.
"We need to know what he knew and when did he know it," said Howard Dean, who flew to Florida to address the convention hours after speaking to the National Council of La Raza (search) convention of Latino leaders in Texas.
"I think there ought to be a complete investigation of this entire matter. The investigation should be a bipartisan investigation outside the Congress. You can not trust a right-wing Congress to investigate a right-wing presidency," Dean told La Raza members.
Candidates attending the gathering of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (search) took the opportunity to jump on the president. But three White House hopefuls — Reps. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman — didn't show up to the convention, citing scheduling conflicts. As a result, they found themselves being attacked by the NAACP leadership.
"If you expect us to believe that you could not find enough time to come and talk to us, then you have no legitimacy," said NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who added that those who didn't attend lost some political stock among the black community.
"In essence, you now have become persona non grata. Your political capital is the equivalent of Confederate dollars," he said.
Gephardt said he couldn't make it because of a prior family obligation. Lieberman said he had campaign events in New York, and Kucinich said he wanted to be in Washington for votes in the House. Spokesmen for all three said their absence wasn't meant to be a snub, and they hoped to work with the NAACP throughout the campaign.
The Rev. Al Sharpton appealed to the crowd both as a presidential contestant and aggrieved member of the group.
"Anytime we can give a party 92 percent of our vote and have to still beg some people to come talk to us, there is still an ax-handle mentality among some in the Democratic Party," Sharpton yelled from the podium, waving a wooden ax handle. "I want to stop people from wanting our vote but not wanting to be seen with us in public, treating us like we are some political mistresses."
Other Democrats, with no ax to grind about NAACP attendance, still took the opportunity to join in the attack on the president.
In Iowa this weekend, Dick Gephardt, who wrote the House resolution authorizing force against Saddam Hussein, accused Bush of trying to pass the buck by saying he just used the intelligence given to him.
"Here's the president of the United States saying 'Wasn't my fault, it's somebody else's fault. It's [CIA Director] George Tenet's fault, it's the CIA's fault.' Well, you know we had a president from Missouri called Harry Truman, and he had a sign on his desk that says, 'The buck stops here.' I think Bush needs to get that sign back on his desk," Gephardt said.
The administration counters that while intelligence that appeared in his January address to the nation was flawed, it does not mean Iraq was not trying to obtain banned weapons material.
On Monday, Bush defended the intelligence he receives.
"I think the intelligence I get is darn good intelligence. And the speeches I have given were backed by good intelligence," Bush said during a press conference with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "And I am absolutely convinced today, like I was convinced when I gave the speeches, that Saddam Hussein developed a program of weapons of mass destruction and that our country made the right decision."
Democrats see the weapons of mass destruction controversy as a way to attack the president's credibility and integrity — two of Bush's most cherished political assets — at a time when public opinion polls show his popularity slightly slipping on everything from national security to the economy.
"The problem is not just the wrong direction in which George Bush has led us, it's that he has misled us time and time again," Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, another Democratic candidate, told La Raza on Sunday.