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Democratic presidential hopefuls appeal to party faithful

Candidates launch attack on Bush policies

By John Mercurio
CNN Washington Bureau

Sen. Joseph Lieberman:
Sen. Joseph Lieberman: "Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction must be destroyed."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Trying to fire up party activists after a weak showing in last fall's elections, four Democratic 2004 presidential hopefuls took on President Bush Friday at the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting -- but also took jabs at each other over the widsom of military action against Iraq.

"What I want to know is why the Democratic leadership in Congress is supporting the Bush administration's position on Iraq?" former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said as he opened his speech at the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting in Washington. "I'm Howard Dean, and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."

Indeed, while Democrats appear united in their goal of beating Bush in 2004, clear tensions surfaced during the morning meeting when candidates discussed the merits of a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

One activist shouted "Shame!" when former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt said he was "proud" he helped write the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to declare war without a United Nations resolution.

Gephardt, along with Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, backed that resolution last year. Since then, Kerry and Edwards have voiced skepticism of military action without UN support, while Lieberman and Gephardt continue to back a possible war.

"Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction must be destroyed sooner rather than later," Lieberman said, "because sooner or later, if we do not, they will be used against us."

Former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun:
Former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun: "Duct tape is no substitute for diplomacy."

Still, Democrats aimed most of their venom at Bush, regardless of their stands on the war. "Duct tape is no substitute for diplomacy and the saber-rattling that has made us all hostage to fear must stop," said former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, who formally joined the race this week.

Candidates focused largely on domestic issues as well, promising that Democrats would restore fiscal responsibility to the federal government and economic prosperity to the nation.

Several candidates also vowed to expand health care to all Americans and said the issue would help the party appeal to traditionally Republican voters currently swayed by other "niche" issues.

"White folks in the South who ride around in pick-up trucks with Confederate flag decals on them ought to be voting for us and not them because their kids don't have health insurance and their kids need better schools too," Dean said to rousing applause.

Democrats appeared to accept some blame for their poor showing in the 2002 midterm elections, when they lost control of the Senate amid accusations that they failed to articulate a coherent message that distinguished them from Republicans.

Rep. Richard Gephardt:
Rep. Richard Gephardt: "George Bush is not going to be easy to beat."

"Never again will the Democratic Party go into an election without saying who we are and what we stand for," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, the only speaker other than DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe who isn't running for president. Pelosi also urged Democrats to "expose the rhetorical gap between George Bush's lofty rhetoric and the harsh reality of his policies."

RNC hits back

But in an open letter to the DNC members issued Friday, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Marc Racicot, said the public did hear the Democrats' message last fall -- and rejected it. And he said Democrats who believe the content of the message wasn't the problem "still don't get it."

"The problem was the message was almost completely negative ... The Democrats thought the best message was just to attack without offering a real alternative," said Raciot, the former governor of Montana.

While Democrats put on a confident face, candidates acknowledged they face a tough road to oust Bush, who has a 58 percent approval rating in the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. "George Bush is not going to be easy to beat," Gephardt said. "This is a guy who came in second in the election and still figured out how to get in the Oval Office."

Edwards, along with the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio will address the committee Saturday. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, another announced candidate, is recovering from prostate surgery.

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