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Debating Dems downplay Gore

Kerry: 'This race is not over'

John Edwards, Howard Dean and John Kerry interact with the audience at the final scheduled debate between rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination.
John Edwards, Howard Dean and John Kerry interact with the audience at the final scheduled debate between rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination.

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DURHAM, New Hampshire (CNN) -- Seven weeks before they face the primary voters of New Hampshire, the nine Democratic presidential candidates faced each other in the Granite State on Tuesday night -- and offered surprisingly little criticism of the man polls show may be moving away from the pack, Howard Dean.

But Dean's rivals did downplay the significance of the high-profile endorsement he received earlier in the day from the party's 2000 nominee, former Vice President Al Gore. (Gore endorses Dean; Sorting the facts in the debate)

"Let me tell you, and I think I speak for every candidate up here, this race is not over until votes have been cast and counted," said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, during a debate at the University of New Hampshire, sponsored by ABC News and WMUR-TV.

"I have this kind of curious notion that I think actually most voters in America make their own decision about who they believe should be the president of the United States," said Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. "I don't think you can tell them what to do."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who, as Gore's vice presidential running mate in 2000, was most stung by his endorsement of Dean.

Speaking Wednesday morning on CNN's "American Morning," Lieberman said, "I sure was surprised that I heard about it from the media, and not from Al."

He said he has been hearing from members of the public "angry about what happened."

"I can tell you that our phones have been ringing off the hook at campaign headquarters," he said. "I was raised to face adversity in one way -- double my determination to continue to fight for what's right for the future of our party and our country."

The sharpest rebuke came from the Rev. Al Sharpton, who dismissed Gore's suggestion that the party should start rallying behind Dean as "bossism."

"To talk about people ought not run and that people ought to get out of the race -- that belongs in the other party," he said. "I know that Governor Dean and Al Gore love the Internet -- www.bossism doesn't work on my computer."

Still, the issue of Dean's electability as the Democratic nominee against President Bush was raised in the debate's opening moments by moderator Ted Koppel, who asked the candidates to raise their hands if they believed Dean could beat Bush.

Only Dean raised his hand.

However, when some of the candidates were questioned further about why they didn't raise their hands, nobody directly came out and said that they feared the former Vermont governor would be a sure loser next fall.

"I'm sure that all of us think that we have the best chance to beat George Bush," said Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. "But I think we're all united in wanting to replace George Bush with a much better president."

But Gephardt went on to say that "in order to beat George Bush, you've got to beat him all across the top of the country, not just in California and New York, but in places like Missouri and Ohio and West Virginia."

Lieberman said the Democratic primaries are "fundamentally a referendum within our party on whether we're going to build on the Clinton transformation in our party in 1992 that reassured people we were strong on defense, we were fiscally responsible, we cared about values, we were interested in cutting taxes for the middle class and working with business to create jobs."

"Howard Dean -- and now Al Gore, I guess -- are on the wrong side of each of those questions," Lieberman said.

Later in the debate, retired Gen. Wesley Clark took a slightly different tack, saying he was the only candidate who could effectively take on Bush on national security issues that will be key to winning next year. (Gallery: The debate in quotes)

"He's going to run on the idea that he's the commander-in-chief, that it's about his patriotism, that he kept us safe after 9/11," Clark said. "The time has passed in America when this party can be the party of compassion and let the executive branch run foreign policy."

"It won't work. We have to be the party that can stand toe-to-toe with George W. Bush on national security, as well as [being] the party of compassion."

For his part, Dean rose to Gore's defense. (On the Scene: Jeff Greenfield)

Man of the hour Howard Dean:
Man of the hour Howard Dean: "If you guys are upset that Al Gore is endorsing me, attack me, don't attack Al Gore."

"If you guys are upset that Al Gore is endorsing me, attack me, don't attack Al Gore," Dean said. "I think Al Gore deserves credit for being the kind of moral leader in this country that we have lost since the last election."

And late in the debate, with the conversation being dominated by criticism of Bush's Iraq policy, Dean -- who made opposition to the war the centerpiece of his insurgent campaign -- made a deliberate move to show he's interested in establishing a broader repertoire.

"Iraq and national security are important, but it's not what this debate's about," he said. "What this election is about is taking back this country for ordinary people. And we can argue all we want about Iraq, but average people can't send their kids to college. Average people have health care payments every month that are more than their house payments."

However, Dean did make a proposal on the foreign policy front likely to draw attention. He endorsed the idea of holding popular elections in Iraq to pick the country's leadership prior to the adoption of a new constitution, a plan being pushed by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's leading Shiite cleric.

The Bush administration and the appointed Iraqi Governing Council oppose that idea, in part because of the fear that the well-organized Shiites, who make up a majority of Iraq's population, could dominate the electoral process and use that dominance to push for an Islamic state.

But Dean said "you cannot expect the Iraqis to think that they have their own government if we're appointing their people. We need an election."

Dick Gephardt and John Kerry confer in a quiet moment around the debate in Durham, New Hampshire.
Dick Gephardt and John Kerry confer in a quiet moment around the debate in Durham, New Hampshire.

Dean conceded that such an election might create a significant Shiite majority, but he said, "The Shiites aren't necessarily uniform."

"We're talking about doing the election first in order to have people who write the constitution who are not seen by the Iraqi people as stooges of the Americans," he said.

Dean reiterated his call for replacing U.S. troops in Iraq with international forces, allowing National Guard and Reserve troops and at least one U.S. division to return home.

But he conceded that American forces will need to remain in Iraq "over a period of years, until the Iraqis really are able to have a democracy which is strong enough not to allow al Qaeda to emerge and have a constitution that's widely enough respected so they will not have a fundamentalist Shiite regime."

In responding to a question about Bush's Iraq policy, Clark, too, made a charge likely to draw scrutiny. Asked for his timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, Clark said, "Everybody wants a timeline, but you can't get a timeline because, in Iraq, it's not a one-sided mechanical problem."

Then, he went on to say that "with this administration in office, we could be in Iraq for the next 50 years."

"They can't fix the region because they don't have a diplomacy that will bring people together and work with them," he said. "With a new administration, with the right leadership, we can reduce that time dramatically."

Criticizing Bush on the issue of homeland security, Edwards charged that there are terrorist cells "all over America" that the FBI is "structurally incapable" of rooting out.

"What are we going to do offensively about the terrorist cells that everyone on this stage knows exist all over America today, tonight, right now?" he said.

"I'm not talking about something that might happen. It's happening right now," said Edwards, who said that going "aggressively" after those cells means taking responsibility for counterterrorism from the FBI.

"They're a law enforcement agency. They're not in the business of fighting terrorism," he said.

Edwards did not elaborate on the evidence for his charge of terror cells, nor outline who would take counterterrorism responsibility from the FBI.

At several points in the debate, Edwards, who has been trailing badly in the polls, sought to portray himself as an outsider who is not a professional politician, despite five years of service in the Senate.

"In order to change the problems in Washington, in order to have real reform, do you want someone who has spent ... most of their adult lives in politics, because there are a lot of people on this stage who represent that," said Edwards, who was a trial lawyer before winning his North Carolina Senate seat in 1998.

"I have not. I am very much an outsider. I have spent most of my life fighting against the powerful special interests."

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