The nine Democratic candidates on hand
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As a sense of liberation spread through the streets of Baghdad on Wednesday, all nine Democrats vying to take on President Bush in 2004 appeared together for the first time.
The Children's Defense Fund, a non profit focused mainly on the needs of poor and disadvantaged children, invited the nine candidates for their first debate of the campaign a full nine months before the first official contest.
Although the candidates voiced similar criticisms of the president's handling of the economy and domestic priorities, their views on whether the war in Iraq was justified were all over the map.
The five Democrats who opposed the war continued to question its objectives and its long term impact.
Although former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean conceded that the United States needed to contain Saddam Hussein - - "We've gotten rid of [Saddam Hussein] and I suppose that's a good thing" -- he maintained the war "opens up a new, dangerous preemptive doctrine."
Florida Sen. Bob Graham, appearing at his first public campaign event since declaring his candidacy, defended his opposition to the war, pointing to what he characterized as more pressing national security threats.
"I believe the war in Iraq has actually reduced our ability to effectively carry out that war against terrorism. It has shattered our alliances that will be critical to success in the war on terrorism. At the same time, we have given a pass to some of the countries that have been harboring terrorists so that we could get their vote in the United Nations, " Graham said.
Former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, the lone woman the race, said that if the cost of the war so far was $80 billion, "that's $79 billion too much." She argued the money would be better spent on health care and other domestic priorities.
The Rev. Al Sharpton questioned the need for military action, saying he still didn't see any immediate danger. Like other war opponents, Sharpton questioned why the focus was on spending money on war and development in Iraq.
"The real question to me is if we can come up with billions to occupy Iraq, why can't we come up with money for the budgets of the 50 states we already occupy," Sharpton asked.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who has staked his campaign largely on his opposition to the war, got a rare turn in the spotlight.
Kucinich argued the war was about "a pretense of weapons of mass destruction -- let's face it, poverty is a weapon of mass destruction."
While war critics stood their ground, so did supporters of the war, all of whom voted for a congressional resolution last fall giving President Bush authority to resort to military act
Sen.Joe Lieberman of Connecticut strongly defended his pro-war position, saying the government's responsibility was to provide for the nation's defense.
But Lieberman took issue with the notion that the government couldn't wage war and provide resources for children's programs.
"The choice between security for our nation and a better life for our children is a false choice...if we pull back this outrageously unfair tax-cut plan of President Bush, we could both protect our security and provide a better life for our children," he said.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards also disputed assertions that the war posed an "either-or" choice between rebuilding Iraq and addressing key social issues at home.
"It is actually the responsibility of the president of the U.S. to be able to do two things at the same time," Edwards said.
Declaring that government's "highest responsibility is to keep people safe," Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, added, "I don't want another 9/11. I don't want weapons of mass destruction used in this society."
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who voted for the congressional resolution approving military action, straddled the two camps, saying, "I fall in a different place."
Kerry said: "I support disarming Saddam Hussein, but I have been very critical of the way this administration went about it."
The crowded stage -- with the largest Democratic field in modern presidential campaigns -- posed a challenge for the candidates to stand apart at this early stage in the race.
The candidates repeatedly played on the phrase "leave no child behind" coined many years ago by the Children's Defense Fund, contrasting it with President Bush's similar slogan -- "No Child Left Behind" for his education reform program. The Democrats used this program as an example of what they charged is President Bush's overall agenda failing American children.
In one humorous attempt at working in the CDF's phrase, Sharpton noted he was the youngest candidate in the race and declared once votes are in, "I will not be left behind."
Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 3:30 pm ET.