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Dem debaters target Bush

Topics range from tax cuts and Iraq to same-sex marriage

John Kerry appears on a large television monitor during Thursday night's debate.
John Kerry appears on a large television monitor during Thursday night's debate.

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MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (CNN) -- In their only debate before next week's New Hampshire primary, Democratic presidential candidates hit hard at President Bush on many of the issues he raised in his State of the Union speech, ranging from tax cuts to Iraq to same-sex marriage.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who got the first question, went into the debate at Saint Anselm College armed with several new endorsements and the lead in most polls.

He said he looked forward to fighting the Republican incumbent over the issue of taxes and defending himself against accusations that Democrats would raise taxes.

"I am going to protect the middle class," said Kerry, adding that over his career in Congress "I have voted for countless numbers of tax cuts."

"This president has created an economy that feeds the special interests, the powerful and the corporate power, and he has not helped the average American worker advance their cause. I will," Kerry said.

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean briefly addressed his now infamous "screech" after the Iowa caucuses Monday night, saying it was a bit of fun he thought he owed his young supporters.

Civil rights activist Al Sharpton told Dean not to worry about his enthusiastic holler after the Iowa caucuses.

"Don't be hard on yourself about hooting and hollering. If I had spent the money you did and got 18 percent, I'd still be in Iowa hooting and hollering," Sharpton said.

Dean also said getting rid of all of Bush's tax cuts would help most middle class Americans.

"Sixty percent of us got $304. Has your property taxes gone up more than $304 because the president cut cops on the beat, refused to fund special education, refused to fund "no child left behind?" Dean said.

The Democratic candidates also disagreed with Bush on Iraq.

"Iraq was not an imminent threat to the United States," Dean said. "It turned out they did not have the weapons of mass destruction that people thought they did, myself included. It turned out that much of what the president told us was not so."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio said Bush was mishandling the situation in Iraq and hinted that oil was the reason.

"Today we're faced with over 500 casualties, a cost of over $200 billion. And it could rise -- the casualties could go into thousands and the cost could go over half a trillion -- if we stay there for years," Kucinich said.

"I believe sincerely that we should bring in U.N. peacekeepers and bring our troops home," Kucinich said. And he said for that to happen "the United States would disavow any interest in the oil."

While retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark has an extensive military background, he found himself defending his Democratic Party credentials.

"I'm pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-environment, pro-labor. I was either going to be the loneliest Republican in America or I was going to be a happy Democrat," he said to great laughter.

On the issue of gay rights, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said the next president should move the country forward.

"There is so much work to be done to treat gays and lesbians and gay and lesbian couples with the respect that they're entitled to. They deserve, in my judgment, partnership benefits. They deserve to be treated fairly when it comes to adoption and immigration," Edwards said.

He also said the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy has hurt national security because "desperately needed" gay linguists had been dismissed.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut did point to one issue on which he was in agreement with Bush. He cited an article quoting Bush that said the Connecticut senator would give him the toughest fight for reelection.

"This is an opinion on which I agree with President Bush."

Kerry gets boost in polls

In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup tracking poll released Thursday, Kerry led Dean 30 percent to 25 percent among likely Democratic voters.

They were followed by Clark with the support of 18 percent of likely voters, Edwards with 11 percent, and Lieberman of Connecticut with 8 percent. Kucinich trailed with 4 percent support, while fewer than 1 percent of likely voters backed Sharpton.

Other polls showed Kerry with an even wider lead.(Full story )

The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald -- newspapers whose polls both had Kerry ahead of Dean by 10 points -- endorsed Kerry, with the Globe calling him "a man of even temperament and abiding Democratic values."

Kerry also picked up the support of Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings of South Carolina, a move that could help Kerry in that state's February 3 contest.(CNN.com's interactive Election Calendar)

Edwards' campaign said it wasn't too concerned about the endorsement, noting that it has "a strong network of elected officials in South Carolina."


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