WASHINGTON, Sept. 25 (UPI) -- Former Gen. Wesley Clark, the latest of the Democratic candidates to enter the race for president, set the tone Thursday when he took aim at President Bush for "recklessly" cutting taxes and taking the United States into war in Iraq.
In the first Democratic Party debate to feature all 10 declared candidates for the 2004 presidential nomination, the Democrats focused on the economy and made Bush's recent request for an additional $87 billion to fund the war on terrorism the centerpiece of their arguments.
Clark, just nine days into the race, said Bush was "a man who recklessly cut taxes, who recklessly took us into war in Iraq."
The Democrats were bolstered by recent poll data that indicated the U.S. public does not support the $87-billion request, with $20 billion set aside for reconstruction aid. Those same polls found Bush's job approval ratings slipping.
"If George Bush rebuilds Iraq the way he rebuilds the United States, they're going to lose three million jobs over the course of the next two years," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Kerry said he had not yet decided on whether to vote for the president's request but said the funds, if approved, should come at the expense of the Bush-pushed tax cuts.
Joining Clark and Kerry on the stage in New York's Pace University were former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean; Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.; Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo.; Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla.; Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio; Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.; former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill.; and civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton.
The Democrats, even though they took similar arguments Thursday, are trying to win the right to face Bush in November 2004. With the shortened primary season -- which begins with the Iowa caucuses Jan. 19 and the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27 -- each candidate has little time to separate from the field. And the field is tight. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday had Clark and Dean tied with 17 percent followed by Lieberman with 16 percent. Kerry was fourth with 11 percent.
Thursday's event did little to clear the dust.
Dean, who opposed the war, said he would vote -- if he was in Congress-- to give the administration the requested funds, but added that the $87 billion should come from the "excessive and extraordinary" tax cut that Bush "foisted upon us."
Lieberman also said there would be no choice but to approve the funding to protect the 127,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. Graham said he would use Iraqi oil to finance the reconstruction efforts.
Braun charged that U.S. forces "are in the shooting gallery without even sufficient supplies to sustain themselves. And so, it is absolutely, I think, critical that we not cut and run, that we provide our troops with what they need and that we just not blow up that country and leave it blown up. We have a responsibility."
Sharpton, who doesn't have a vote, and Kucinich, who as a member of the House does, both said they would vote against the funding.
"I won't invest in a flawed, failing policy. I won't choose to fund a bad investment with a bad investment," Sharpton said.
Gephardt said it was incomprehensible to him that Bush could go to the United Nations for help in Iraq and "come away empty handed." Lieberman said Bush had gone to the United Nations "like a beggar."
The candidates hammered Bush's economic policies, which have given taxpayers two tax cuts since he took office in 2001, the first relief package enacted in 2002 for $1.35 billion over 10 years while the second cuts $350 billion in taxes and became effective earlier this year.
Democrats have blamed Bush's tax cuts for the rising federal deficit. The Congressional Budget Office in August predicted a record federal budget deficit of $480 billion next year. In its budget and economic outlook, the agency reported that the government would face a $401 billion budget shortfall in 2003. It predicted a total budget deficit of slightly less than $1.4 trillion between fiscal years 2004 and 2013.
Dean and Gephardt favored rolling back the tax cuts. "This plan has failed. We should not keep half of a failure or a quarter of a failure," Gephardt said.
Dean said that 60 percent of the Americans at the bottom of the tax scale received $325.
"Whatever they got out there in tax cuts, the majority of Americans saw property taxes go up and tuition go up because we had enormous tax cuts and no money going to the states," Dean said.
The candidates were reluctant to make major concessions regarding U.S. trade policy. Bush has been blamed for corporations moving their business operation overseas in search of cheaper labor and less government regulation.
Kerry said it was important that trade agreements have provisions requiring companies to adhere to labor, environmental and safety standards.
Kucinich, however, said he wanted to abandon both the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization.
Edwards called for U.S. workers to be empowered and the labor movement supported.
On healthcare, Clark -- who has been criticized for his inexperience on domestic agenda, although he presented a $100 billion economic plan Wednesday -- said it was important to build on the existing programs such as the Children's Health Insurance Program. He also stressed the importance of preventive medicine and wellness programs.
Braun suggested that a single-payer system would serve small business, consumers and corporations best. Kucinich said his proposal for Medicare-for-all plan would cover all Americans.
On prescription drugs, Lieberman said he would support the re-importation of medications from Canada with approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
Sharpton said he would fight for no prescription drug bill rather than give in to a diluted version that provided no real benefits for the nation's seniors.
Congressional lawmakers have been trying to eke out a prescription drug plan that would satisfy seniors who have been paying skyrocketing medication costs as well as pharmaceutical companies who argue those costs are associated with advanced research and development of new drugs. Bush had promised seniors that some type of prescription drug plan would be passed as part of his effort to overhaul the Medicare system -- another political target for the incumbent if it does not happen.
The debate became mildly heated when Gephardt attacked Dean by reminding the former Vermont governor he stood with former House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich on Medicare policy. Dean, a practicing medical doctor before he entered politics, rebuked Gephardt, saying he had done more on Medicare than Gephardt ever had and that his Medicare reforms would be conducted with a physician at the helm.
The candidates rejected the Bush plan to privatize Social Security. Clark said it was fine if individuals wanted to invest in stocks for their retirement but not to the detriment of the decades-old entitlement program.
Clark's entry into the race last week has set some of his competitors wondering about his true political colors. But the former general, reacting to a question from about his political leanings, said, "I am proud to be a Democrat."
"I was never partisan in the military," he said. "I served under Democratic presidents, I served under Republican presidents. But as I looked at this country and looked which way we were headed, I knew that I needed to speak out. And when I needed to speak out, there was only party to come to."
The next debate is scheduled for Oct. 9 in Phoenix.