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Democrats mix it up in debate

Clark draws little fire in debut as he bashes Bush

Wesley Clark opened the debate with a biting attack on President Bush.
Wesley Clark opened the debate with a biting attack on President Bush.

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Layoffs and Downsizing

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark got nearly a free pass from his nine Democratic rivals Thursday afternoon as he debuted at his first presidential campaign debate with a bashing of President Bush.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean wasn't as fortunate, continuing to draw fire for his positions on trade, tax cuts and Medicare.

And everyone on the stage during the two-hour debate at Pace University in New York's lower Manhattan offered withering criticism of Bush, the man they hope to replace.

"In the Bush administration, the foxes are guarding the foxes, and the middle-class hens are getting plucked," said Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

Despite Clark's jump to the top of the polls since announcing his candidacy last week, he largely escaped criticism.

Civil rights activist Al Sharpton even offered a backhanded welcome to the newly minted Democrat.

"Don't be defensive about just joining the party. Welcome to the party. It's better to be a new Democrat that's a real Democrat than a lot of old Democrats up here that have been acting like Republicans all along," he said.

Clark, who announced he was a Democrat just before jumping into the race, was queried about his partisan loyalties, given that he made a speech in May 2001 praising Bush and former President Ronald Reagan.

"I think it's been an incredible journey for me and for this country since early 2001," Clark said.

"We elected a president we thought was a compassionate conservative. Instead, we got neither conservatism or compassion. We got a man who recklessly cut taxes. We got a man who recklessly took us into war with Iraq.

"I am pro-choice, I am pro-affirmative action, I am pro-environment, pro-health," he said.

"I believe the United States should engage with allies. We should be a good player in the international community. And we should use force only as a last resort. That's why I'm proud to be a Democrat."

Gephardt vs. Dean

In the most contentious exchange of the afternoon, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri went after Dean, a medical doctor, for comments he made in the mid-1990s critical of Medicare.

"He said ... Medicare was the worst federal program ever," Gephardt said. "Howard, you were agreeing with the very plan that Newt Gingrich wanted to pass, which was a $270 billion cut in Medicare."

"You've been saying for many months that you're the head of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. I think you're just winging it. This is not the view of Democrats."

Dean bristled at the reference to Gingrich, the Democrats' long-standing political bogeyman who became speaker in 1995 after helping Republicans gain control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

"That is flat-out false, and I'm ashamed that you would compare me to Newt Gingrich. Nobody up here deserves to be compared to Newt Gingrich," Dean said.

"I did say that Medicare was a dreadful program because it's administered dreadfully.

"To insinuate that I would get rid of Medicare is wrong, it's not helpful and we need to remember that the enemy here is George Bush, not each other."

Dean vs. Kerry, Lieberman

Dean also mixed it up with Lieberman and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry over whether to roll back Bush's tax cuts.

Dean wants to reverse all of them. Kerry and Lieberman want to retain those benefiting the middle class.

"They are a mistake. The middle class never got a tax cut for us to defend," Dean said.

"Their college tuitions went up. Their property taxes went up. Fire and police and first response services are going down, and local people are having to pay for that."

But Kerry said the middle-class tax cuts in Bush's package were the result of "the efforts of Democrats to try to reach the middle class of America."

"It was in keeping with the spirit of our party to try to help the average American get ahead in a country where, increasingly, average Americans are getting stomped on," he said.

"If all of a sudden, when we're trying to recover, we sucked a whole lot of money out of those consumers, we are not going to keep the economy moving."

Lieberman noted President Clinton supported tax cuts for the middle class.

"The debate going on between us is really a debate about whether we want to take the Democratic Party back to where it was before Bill Clinton transformed it in 1992, or whether we want to take it forward," Lieberman said.

Clark: Don't spare Pentagon

Clark cited his neophyte status when queried about Bush's request for $87 billion next year for military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"If I've learned one thing in my nine days in politics, you better be careful with hypothetical questions, and you've just asked one," he said.

"We need to support our troops. But we need answers on this. ... The president needs to tell us how he's going to pay for it. This can't be an addition to the deficit."

Clark did say that he would repeal Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans and put a moratorium on any new federal programs "unless you can pay as you go."

"We need to put all the government spending programs on the table, including the military programs," he said.

The debate was sponsored by CNBC and the Wall Street Journal.

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