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Democrats clash in early debate

Sen. John Edwards, right, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean during Saturday's debate.
Sen. John Edwards, right, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean during Saturday's debate.

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- While they united against President Bush, nine Democratic presidential hopefuls squabbled Saturday night over the war in Iraq, health care, and tax cuts.

The 90-minute debate, the earliest formal nationally televised debate in presidential campaign history, was held at the University of South Carolina. It came nearly nine months before the first scheduled presidential primary of the 2004 campaign, and 18 months before the general election.

Participating in the event were former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. John Edwards, Sen. Bob Graham, Rep. Richard Gephardt, Sen. John Kerry, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman and activist Al Sharpton.

The candidates began by facing off on the military, defense, and the war in Iraq.

"No Democrat will be elected in 2004 who is not strong on defense," said Lieberman, of Connecticut.

Kerry, of Massachusetts, reminded Dean of the governor's recent comment that America must prepare for the day when it does not have the strongest military in the world.

"I disagree," Kerry said. "I believe that anybody who thinks that they have to prepare for the day that we're not the strongest is preparing for a day when we have serious problems."

Dean responded, "No commander-in-chief would ever -- and I am no exception -- willingly allow our military influence to shrink. Unilateralism is a mistake ... I think the senator made a mistake in criticizing me."

Sensing the divide could overshadow the issues, the other candidates at the table then tried to contain it.

"We're not fighting each other," said Gephardt, of Missouri. "We're trying to select one of us to be the opponent of [President] George Bush."

"The squabble between Howard Dean and John Kerry may make interesting political theater, but it doesn't send the right message to the voters about our party," said Lieberman.

"Republicans are watching," joked Sharpton, of New York. "Let's not start fighting."

Democratic presidential hopefuls Sens. Bob Graham, left, and John Kerry
Democratic presidential hopefuls Sens. Bob Graham, left, and John Kerry

The debate was taped for later broadcast on ABC stations around the country. It was moderated by George Stephanopoulos, who hosts ABC's Sunday program, "This Week." Stephanopoulos served as a White House aide during the Clinton administration.

Gephardt's health care plan, unveiled last week, was another major issue. Edwards, of North Carolina, said he applauds Gephardt for addressing the issue, but differs in how to do it.

In particular, Edwards said he disagrees with giving tax credits to corporations that would be required to provide health insurance to their employees. He said it takes money "directly" out of taxpayers' hands.

"I think that's taking money that people desperately need, giving it to people -- the very people -- that we've had trouble with," Edwards said, referring to the recent spate of corporate scandals. "It feels like saying, 'You're in good hands with Enron.'"

Kerry sided with Edwards, saying Gephardt's plan boils down to a money transfer that only rewards corporations for what most are already doing -- providing insurance to their workers.

Kucinich, of Ohio, offered his own plan: phasing in a 7.7 percent payroll tax on all employers, with revenues to be the "mainstay" of a national health care plan.

"We need to get the profit out of health care, and that means get the private insurance companies out of health care," he said. "Any plan that is offered to the American people that fails to do that is not going to deliver the best-quality universal health care."

Dean, who touted his credentials as both a governor and a doctor, proposed giving Medicaid to everyone younger than 25. Prescription drug benefits would be offered to all senior citizens, and those in between -- aged 25 to 65 -- would receive subsidies if they need help buying insurance or work for companies that don't offer it.

Lieberman chided such ideas as "the kind of big-spending Democratic ideas of the past" and said the nation can't afford them.

South Carolina, which holds its primary February 3, 2004, is a key early state on the Democratic calendar. Its primary is the first in the South and follows the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, left, Rep. Dick Gephardt, center, and Rev. Al Sharpton just before Saturday night's debate
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, left, Rep. Dick Gephardt, center, and Rev. Al Sharpton just before Saturday night's debate

It is also one of the most solidly Republican outposts in the South. No Democratic presidential candidate has carried the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976, and both the governor's mansion and legislature are in GOP hands.

In 2000, Democrats lost every state in the region to Bush.

Graham, of Florida, played up the fact that he and Edwards are both from the South.

"Who have been the last three Democratically elected presidents?" he asked. "Lyndon Johnson from Texas, Jimmy Carter from Georgia, and Bill Clinton from Arkansas. That says something about what it takes to be elected."

Constitutional rights also came up Saturday. When asked, Edwards, Lieberman, and Moseley-Braun, of Illinois, all said they disagree with laws such as South Carolina's ban on consensual sodomy.

Moseley-Braun then brought up the Patriot Act, signed by Congress in late 2001, which grants wide powers for federal wiretaps and searches of e-mail messages.

"I really think we have a real crisis in America when it comes to our civil liberties, and I do hope that this act will be repealed," she said. "I hope that we will all take very seriously rolling back some of the assault on privacy that this administration has begun."

Edwards chimed in, agreeing the law is of "serious concern."

"I think the problem with the Patriot Act is not the law itself, it's the way it's being administered, particularly the way it's being administered by the attorney general of the United States, General Ashcroft," Edwards said. "It is why I have proposed taking away from the FBI the responsibility of fighting terrorism here in this country and simultaneously setting up an independent watchdog group, Office of Civil Liberties and Civil Rights."

Gun rights was another constitutional issue raised Saturday.

Stephanopoulos challenged Lieberman to defend the proposal that presidential candidate Al Gore had when the two ran on the same ticket in 2000 -- the licensing of all newly bought handguns.

Surprisingly, Lieberman said he never supported the proposal, which he said Gore came up with before he came on board.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, left, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, center, and Dean
Sen. Joe Lieberman, left, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, center, and Dean

"The American citizens have a right to own firearms," he said. "Licensing, registration, in my opinion, are bad ideas and violations of that fundamental right."

When Stephanopoulos then asked whether any of the candidates would support licensing and registration of handguns, Sharpton was the only one to say that he would.

"I think that we must do whatever we can to regulate how guns are used," he said.

Later in the debate, candidates had the chance to pose one question to a fellow candidate. Lieberman, for whom voting problems in Florida played such a big part in the 2000 election, asked Moseley-Braun what she would do to ensure every vote is counted in 2004.

She responded that voting must be made easier for everyone, with programs like "motor-voter" and at-home registration.

"We need to pursue opportunities for individuals to vote instead of making it a high hurdle that they have to leap," she said, "and in all cases make certain that we never again allow for the stealing of an election, as happened with you and Sen. Gore."

Before Saturday's debate, the earliest nationally televised presidential debate was held during the 1988 campaign, when seven Democratic candidates met in Houston, Texas, on July 1, 1987.

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