Clark takes heat in Democratic debate
Newly arrived front-runner slammed by rivals
PHOENIX, Arizona (CNN) -- With the latest poll showing Wesley Clark at the front of the pack, his Democratic presidential rivals ratcheted up their criticism of the retired general Thursday evening, taking issue with what they see as flip-flops in his views on the Iraq war and President Bush's performance.
In the latest Democratic debate, televised exclusively by CNN from the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix, Clark was pressed over differing statements he has made about whether he would have voted for the congressional resolution authorizing war in Iraq. He insisted he would "never have voted for war."
"I would have voted for a resolution that took the problem to the United Nations. I would not have voted for a resolution that would have taken us to war. It's that simple," he said. "The Congress made a mistake in giving George Bush an open-ended resolution that enabled him to go to war without coming back to the Congress."
But his rivals -- both those who supported the resolution and those who opposed going to war in Iraq -- took issue with what they see as Clark's waffling.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the most unwavering supporter of the Iraq war among candidates in the Democratic field, said he was "very disappointed" by Clark's "various positions" on the war.
"A few days before the vote in Congress, he said he would have recommended it and would have supported the resolution. After the war, he wrote a piece in the Times of London praising President Bush and Tony Blair for their resolve. When he became a candidate, he said he probably would have voted for the resolution. There was an uproar. Then he said, 'I never would have voted for the resolution.'"
"The American people have lost confidence in George Bush because he hasn't leveled with them," Lieberman said. "We need a candidate who will meet the test of reaching a conclusion and having the courage to stick with it."
Clark bristled at that comment, saying, "It's really embarrassing that a group of candidates up here are working on changing the leadership in this country and can't get their own story straight."
He conceded that he had praised Bush and Blair "for sticking with the offensive in Iraq once it had begun."
"But I also noted in every op-ed [article] and every comment I ever made that there was not enough forces there, there was not a plan for dealing with it afterwards. And I've said all along, it was not an imminent threat."
Clark was also hit by his rivals over his praise of Bush and his national security team in May 2001, at a Republican fund-raiser in his home state of Arkansas.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts noted that Clark's comments about the Bush administration came just days before Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords bolted the GOP, turning control of the Senate to the Democrats, "because of what they were doing to this country."
"At that moment, the general was prepared to say they are the right people. At that moment, those of us who were fighting for Democratic principles, and have been for 35 years or more, were fighting against what they were doing to this country. And we had no lack of clarity about what compassionate conservative meant to this nation."
In response, Clark noted that he had voted for former Vice President Al Gore in 2000, not Bush. He said at the time he attended the GOP event, he was "non-partisan" and wanted the Bush national security team "to be successful."
"Things have changed radically since 2001," he said. "I could still have hope in early 2001 that this administration would learn its lessons, as most administrations do."
He said that as a general, he "worked with Dick Cheney and Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld. But I'm very, very disappointed with how they and this administration have led this country."
But Clark's comment about having "hope" for the Bush administration in its early days prompted a dig from Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
"I have stood up to this president over and over and over, including back in 2001 when some on this stage had hope for President Bush," Edwards said. "I did not have hope for President Bush."
Thursday's appearance marked just the second time Clark has debated the eight other Democrats since entering the race three weeks ago. In the first debate, the other candidates sent few jabs in the general's direction. But this time, with Clark now the national front-runner, the gloves came off.
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Thursday showed that Clark was the choice of 21 percent of registered Democrats, with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in second place at 16 percent. Kerry and Lieberman were tied for third at 13 percent, while Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri was next at 8 percent.
The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Clark, who has been very critical of the Bush administration's foreign policy since entering the race, charged Thursday that its "pre-emptive doctrine," as expressed in attacking Iraq, "is causing North Korea and Iran to accelerate their nuclear weapons development."
He also challenged other candidates who serve in Congress to directly confront the president on that issue.
"Let's see you take apart that doctrine of pre-emption now. I don't think we can wait until November of 2004 to change the administration on this threat," he said. "We're marching into another military campaign in the Middle East. We need to stop it."
The candidates also differed on why they think the fortunes of the Democratic Party have waned in recent years, particularly an erosion of its support among middle-class voters.
Dean, running on the left as a Washington outsider, said the party hasn't taken a strong enough stand against Bush and his policies.
"Why do you think I am where I am, having come from no place at the end of January? It's because I've gone out and given 50 percent of Americans who have given up on voting in this country a reason to vote again," he said.
"We have to have the values of the Democratic Party, but in Washington, the culture is, 'Say whatever it takes to get elected.' And the minute you're willing to say whatever it takes to get elected, you lose, because the American people are not nearly as dumb as the people in Washington think we are."
Not surprisingly, the candidates who are members of Congress took exception to the charge that they aren't defending Democratic values against the GOP.
"I've certainly been standing up for what I believe is right for the country in this campaign and in the 30 years of my public life, regardless of whether it was politically easy," Lieberman said.
But the Connecticut senator said Democrats will not win back middle-class voters "unless we can convince them that we are a party that will be strong on defense and will reflect their best values," including "a willingness to stand up and take on some interests like Hollywood and say that the entertainment industry is putting too much violence and inappropriate sexual matter in front of our children."
Gephardt, offering a spirited defense of the Democratic economic program under former President Clinton, said he sees the party's position with middle-class voters as "half-full."
"I think the Democratic Party has proven, through real results during the Clinton administration, that we do have the right values, we do reflect the values of the American people," he said. "It's based on that moral value that you only can succeed in this country if you bring everybody up together. That's what we did."
He also said the prosperity of the Clinton years proves that "if you want to live like a Republican, you've got to vote for the Democrats."