SAN FRANCISCO - On the best day in weeks for U.S. forces in Iraq, the Democratic presidential contenders leveled fresh criticism at President Bush and his foreign policy, with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt urging the administration to abandon its bullying, "chest-beating unilateralism" and to seek help from NATO and the United Nations.
Most of the major Democratic candidates voted for the war resolution on Iraq. But they have been scrambling in recent weeks to appeal to virulently anti-Bush sentiment among their party's liberal-leaning primary voters.
Gephardt, who spoke shortly after the United States announced that Saddam Hussein's two sons had been killed, made no reference to the news in a long-planned foreign policy speech. But he told reporters later that, if true, it would be "a good thing," because ridding Iraq of remnants of the Baath regime is essential to gaining the confidence of the Iraqi people.
Similarly, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut praised the killing of Hussein's sons as "an important victory in our on-going war in Iraq." But the Democratic hopeful added, in his written statement, that "it also underscores our unfinished work to restore stability and secure democracy there. We must redouble our efforts to build international support to finish the job of bringing freedom to Iraq."
Gephardt, who defended his war vote before a luncheon audience in one of the nation's most liberal cities, said it was "absolute insanity" for Bush to resist asking other nations to share the burden of ending the fighting in Iraq. More than 147,000 American troops are stationed there, at a cost of about $4 billion a month.
The Missouri congressman warned that the United States risked "losing the peace" in Iraq unless the administration moves more aggressively to avert a "looming quagmire."
"President Bush may have won the support of a lot of Democrats - including me - for his war effort there, but in his dissembling and mishandling, he's steadily losing every ounce of bipartisan support he once had," Gephardt told several hundred members of the Bar Association of San Francisco. "When President Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and declared victory in Iraq, I think he chose the wrong backdrop for his photo-op. If you ask me, if he really wanted to show us the state of affairs in Iraq, he should have landed on a patch of quicksand."
Gephardt also said that U.S. anti-terrorism efforts were being hampered by the "too cozy" U.S. relationship with Saudi oil producers: "Here's the Bush-Cheney policy: independence from just about anyone who can help us stabilize the Middle East; total dependence on the very source of the problem."
To applause, Gephardt added that the administration "needs to stop behaving like the United States of Saudi Arabia and ... start mobilizing international pressure to get Saudi Arabia to stop funding, training and breeding global terror in the first place."
On Monday, Sen. John Kerry blamed the administration's "hubris" and its fear of being humiliated for its reluctance to more broadly internationalize the U.S.-led force in Iraq. The Massachusetts senator defended Democratic criticism of Bush's policies while U.S. troops are under fire in Iraq by recalling his experiences as a Navy officer in Vietnam.
"People did not speak up for too long," Kerry told reporters in a conference call. He said he felt now that he was "speaking for the troops" in Iraq, some of whom have gone public recently with criticism of the U.S. effort.
Another Democratic contender, Sen. John Edwards, attacked Bush's truthfulness on Iraq during a campaign stop in South Carolina. "The most important attribute any president has is his credibility ... with the American people, allies and the world," said the North Carolina senator, who also voted for the war resolution. "When the president's own statements are called into question, it is a very serious matter."
Backing for military action against Iraq was thought to be good politics, enabling a Democrat to win the support of independent voters in the general election. But it hasn't played well with much of the Democratic primary electorate, which is strongly anti-war.
The candidate who has benefited most is Howard Dean, a former governor of Vermont, who has gone from dark horse candidate to major contender, largely on the strength of his anti-war position.
Campaigning yesterday in New Hampshire, Dean called for the resignations of officials who misled Bush over Iraq's attempts to obtain uranium. Bush's deputy national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, admitted that he had been aware of the CIA's objections to the allegations and apologized yesterday for failing to remove the offending language from Bush's State of the Union speech.
Dean also directed fresh criticism at his Democratic rivals for enabling Bush to lead the nation to war in the first place.
"Why is it that those in Congress have waited until now to question the intelligence, to question the lack of postwar planning, to question the skyrocketing costs of this war?" Dean said, faulting them for not "seeking the truth nine months ago, before they voted to give the president blank-check authority to go to war."
In the latest boost for his candidacy, Dean has emerged as one of the front-runners here in California, which has roughly one-fifth of all the delegates needed to win the nomination.
A new statewide survey of 1,040 registered voters by the independent Field organization shows Dean as the choice of 16 percent of likely Democratic voters in California, followed by Kerry with 15 percent and Lieberman with 14 percent, statistically a three-way tie. The margin of error in the poll is 5 percentage points.
Gephardt, whose inability to raise more early campaign money has raised questions about the strength of his bid, was fourth, with 7 percent in the poll, which was conducted over the first two weeks of July and released Monday.