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Democratic presidential hopefuls debate

Bush focus of criticism

The Democratic presidential hopefuls were tough in their criticism of President Bush during Sunday's debate.
The Democratic presidential hopefuls were tough in their criticism of President Bush during Sunday's debate.

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MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin (CNN) -- The five Democrats vying for their party's presidential nomination sparred politely during a Sunday night debate at which they aimed most of their fire at President Bush.

The candidates attempted -- albeit with polite language and cordial arguments -- to score points against each other in a contest in which polls show Sen. John Kerry with a wide lead in Wisconsin, which holds its primary Tuesday.

At one point during the 90-minute debate, held Sunday evening at Marquette University and broadcast on MSNBC, Kerry spoke as if the nomination was all but his.

Asked about his vote authorizing Bush to send U.S. troops to Iraq, Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, said, "I was voting for the process that the president posed. There was a right way to do this and a wrong way to do it. And the president chose the wrong way."

Kerry said he was referring to what he called Bush's failure to build an international coalition and exhaust U.N. inspection efforts before going to war.

Kerry then added, "This is one of the reasons why I am so intent on beating George Bush and why I believe I will beat George Bush."

Referring to Kerry's failure to use the conditional tense, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina retorted, "Not so fast, John Kerry. We're going to have an election here in Wisconsin this Tuesday. And we've got a whole group of primaries coming up. And I, for one, intend to fight with everything I've got for every one of those votes."

Kerry heads into Tuesday's primary in Wisconsin with a lead in the polls and 14 victories in 16 state nominating contests. His two latest wins came Saturday in caucuses in Nevada and Washington, D.C. (Full story)

At stake in Wisconsin are 72 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July. (Delegate scorecard)

The next big test after Wisconsin is March 2, "Super Tuesday," when 10 states choose delegates. (Interactive election calendar)

Kerry once again defended himself against charges -- now leveled in a Bush political advertisement -- that the Democrat is beholden to special interests.

"I'm the only U.S. senator who has been elected four times -- voluntarily refusing to take one dime of PAC [political action] committee special interest money," he said. All of his campaign donations have come from individual Americans, he said. And only "one percent of it in my lifetime has come from anybody who has ever lobbied for anything."

Kerry said the Bush campaign was "resorting to that because they don't want to talk about jobs; they can't." The same holds true for health care, he said, for which Bush has "no plan," and education, which Kerry called a "broken promise to children across this country, as they leave millions of children behind."

A senior adviser said Kerry on Monday will embark on a four-day tour, targeting Bush and focusing "on the need to retool America's economy." (Full story)

Former front-runner Dean said it was Bush who is beholden to special interests.

"I think George Bush has some nerve attacking anybody about special interests," the former Vermont governor said about the Bush campaign's attack on Kerry. Dean accused Bush of "systematically looting" the American treasury and giving it to special interests.

The candidates reserved their elbows for their Republican opponent, hitting him on everything from his truthfulness about why he took America to war with Iraq to the economy to his Vietnam-era service in the National Guard.

Asked if Bush had been lying to the American people when he said -- before the U.S. invasion -- that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, the Rev. Al Sharpton minced no words.

"Clearly, he lied," he said. Asked whether the president knew he was lying, Sharpton said, "I hope he knew he was lying, because if he didn't, and just went in some kind of crazy psychological breakdown, then we're really in trouble."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio agreed. "The president lied to the American people," he said about the failure by weapons inspectors to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The economy was a major issue, and the participants were united in their contention that Bush's plans were leading the country away from fiscal strength.

The Democrats did not flinch when asked whether they would support a repeal of some or all of Bush's tax cuts.

Kerry said he would "roll back the tax cut for the wealthiest Americans," but said he would not reinstate taxes that affect the middle class.

"The middle class never got a tax cut," Dean said, saying increased property taxes and increased tuition costs that have more-than offset the cuts for many Americans.

Edwards, whose father was a mill worker, said the issue was one he had grappled with personally. "I saw what happened when the mill in my hometown closed."

He added that, whatever a new administration may do, many jobs simply won't return to U.S. shores. "Some of these jobs are gone."

He said he would try to reverse incentives by changing tax policy "not to give breaks to American companies that leave the country."

Bush, meanwhile, traveled to Florida to attend Sunday's Daytona 500, the biggest race on the NASCAR circuit. The race gave Bush the opportunity to woo tens of millions of NASCAR fans -- the sport claims a fan base of 75 million -- watching the televised event 81/2 months before the election. (Full story)

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