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Democrats take aim at Bush during debate

Harsh criticism of president's Iraq policy

The Democratic candidates saved most of their criticism for President Bush during the debate.
The Democratic candidates saved most of their criticism for President Bush during the debate.

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Democratic candidates for president debated in New Mexico Thursday night. All took shots at Bush.
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ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (CNN) -- Democratic presidential hopefuls Thursday blasted the Bush administration for failing to garner United Nations support of its Iraq policy months ago, a decision they said has endangered relations with U.S. allies. Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri called President Bush "a miserable failure."

Eight of the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls shared a stage at the University of New Mexico in the first of six major debates sponsored by the Democratic National Committee.

The debate came as the United States prepares Friday to lay out its request to U.N. Security Council members for a more robust international force in Iraq.

The Democrats had relatively little criticism for one another, aiming their comments at Bush.

Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, said he was glad Bush "is finally beginning to see the light," and said the president is now going "back to the very people he humiliated, our allies."

"We cannot do this by ourselves, we cannot have an American occupation and reconstruction," Dean said. "We were wrong to go in without the United Nations, now we need their help."

Gephardt, who supported the Iraq war, said Bush just "doesn't get it," and described the president as a unilateralist who has jeopardized U.S. relations with countries worldwide.

"This president is a miserable failure," he said. "This president has to lead, and he is not leading. He's a miserable failure on this issue, and he must be replaced in the election."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut said he didn't vote to "support the war against Saddam Hussein so we could control Iraq." He said he believed Saddam Hussein was a threat to the nation, but he sharply criticized Bush for what he described as a lack of post-war planning.

"This administration let down our troops -- let me make that clear -- in not having a plan to secure the country, in not having international help, in not bringing in the Iraqis quickly enough, and in doing so, they exposed American soldiers to more danger than they should have been exposed to. As president, I will never do that," Lieberman said.

Sen. John Kerry, who also supported the war, criticized the president for flying to an aircraft carrier May 1 for a photo opportunity to declare the end of major combat.

"What we know now is that being flown to an aircraft carrier and pronouncing the words, 'Mission accomplished,' does not end a war," said the Massachusetts senator. "And the swagger of a president who says, 'Bring them on,' does not bring our troops peace or safety."

Kerry added: "We need a president who understands how to get it right in the beginning. ... We should only go to war because we have to. And we must hold the United Nations up for what it is."

A recent CNN/USA Today Gallup has shown Lieberman, Gephardt, Dean and Kerry as the top candidates in the Democratic field among voters.

In Thursday's debate, former ambassador and former Illinois senator, Carol Moseley Braun, took the administration to task for getting off course on the war on terrorism.

"Let me mention a name that probably nobody has heard in a long time. And that's Osama bin Laden -- 'bin missing,'" said Braun, the only woman in the field of candidates. "We haven't been looking for him because we got off on the wrong track."

She called Bush's Iraq policy a "misadventure" and said the war resolution "allowed this president to go off hell-bent for leather."

"The chickens are beginning to come home to roost," she said.

Sen. Bob Graham of Florida said he voted against the war because he felt Iraq was the "wrong enemy," unlike al Qaeda. He accused Bush of burning bridges on multiple international issues, ranging from the environment to ballistic missiles.

"It's not just Iraq. It's the Kyoto treaty. It's the ABM agreement. It is agreement after agreement, which were critical to the maintenance of the victory of the Cold War and now to environmental sanity that this president has rejected," he said.

"No wonder we have so much trouble getting support when we need it."

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said the lack of security in Iraq has put American troops "in a shooting gallery right now."

"The primary reason for that is because this president had no plan. And now he stubbornly continues to fight an effort to bring others in, to relinquish some responsibility, some control in order to bring our friends and allies into this effort," Edwards said.

Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich said it was time for the United States to withdraw from Iraq.

"It is time to bring the troops home, it is time to bring the U.N. in and get the U.S. out," he said.

The ninth Democrat presidential hopeful, the Rev. Al Sharpton, could not make the event due to bad weather that delayed his travels.

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