MANCHESTER, N.H. — Democratic presidential contenders offered competing claims of their electability against President Bush on Thursday night in the final debate before next week’s New Hampshire primary.
“I look forward to that fight,” said Sen. John Kerry, winner of this week’s Iowa caucuses and leader in the polls for New Hampshire’s Tuesday primary as well.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean trumpeted his record as a state budget balancer, while Sen. Joe Lieberman said Bush had recently identified him as the Democrat he was most worried about.
“I didn’t get to the Senate by accident,” said Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolinian who defeated a Republican incumbent to win his seat in 1998 and cited his support for gun rights.
Dean, who faded to a weak third-place finish in Iowa, sought to minimize any damage from a memorably long and loud post-caucus speech he made to supporters, while retired Gen. Wesley Clark strongly defended his Democratic credentials.
“I’m pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-environment and pro-labor,” he said. “I was either going to be the loneliest Republican in America or I was going to be a happy Democrat.”
The two-hour debate was held five days before New Hampshire Democrats cast their ballots in the first primary of the nominating campaign.
The recent Iowa caucuses shook up the race dramatically, and the debate’s opening moments suggested it had caused a reappraisal in debate strategy as well.
Dean and Rep. Dick Gephardt finished third and fourth in the caucuses, after engaging in a lateexchange of attack and counterattack. Kerry and Edwards stayed largely above the fray, and surged to surprise first- and second-place finishes.
During the New Hampshire debate, several of the contenders passed up opportunities to criticize one another — chances they might have leapt at in earlier encounters. The cordial tone was a reflection of the outcome in Iowa, where negative ads and sharp criticism sent Dean and Gephardt to poor finishes — strategies the campaigns have tried to avoid in New Hampshire.
“This is a time to be affirmative. I’d say nice try,” Lieberman told one questioner who had invited a critical comparison with other Democrats on stage.
Dean, trying to regain his footing in the race, made an exception at one point in the two-hour debate.
“Someone earlier made a remark about losing 500 soldiers and 2,200 wounded” in Iraq, he said. “Those soldiers were sent there by the vote of Sen. Lieberman, Sen. Edwards and Sen. Kerry. I think that is a serious matter.”
The three senators voted in favor of the congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to use military force in Iraq. Dean opposed the war.