Democrats assail Bush to gain the black vote

The Congressional Black Caucus that sponsored last night's debate among the nine Democratic presidential candidates planned to test them on a series of issues of particular concern and interest to African-Americans.

That objective succeeded, with pledges aplenty from the candidates to respond to the needs of minorities and to not take black voters for granted, as the Democratic Party often is accused of doing.


But beyond that, the debate at Morgan State University demonstrated that the interests of the Democratic Party's most-dependable constituency are not that different from those of all Americans at a time when the nation is at war abroad and has economic troubles at home.

While each of the nine presidential hopefuls competed to persuade the African-American community that he or she was most attuned to its problems and desires, they showed no hesitation in pounding President Bush for what they see as his failure to prosecute the post-invasion peacekeeping in Iraq with the same efficiency that the military brought to deposing the regime of Saddam Hussein.


At the same time, they exchanged sharp elbows on the issue that is increasingly separating them in the Democratic race -- support for or opposition to Bush's invasion of Iraq and how to respond to his request for $87 billion more to cope with the immense pacification and reconstruction job.

The questions posed to the nine by a panel of three African-American journalists seemed more pointed on issues involving race than are often the case in such presidential debates, and the two black candidates present, civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, were not treated as also-rans as in other such sessions.

Sharpton particularly commanded his share of attention by repeatedly rebuking hecklers in the audience and demanding that he and his fellow candidates be afforded the respect they deserved as seekers after their party's nomination.

But for all the questions and answers focused on matters of race and racial concerns, the increasingly fierce contest among the white candidates leading in most polls dominated.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut continued his assault against former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont for indicating that he favors an even-handed posture by the United States as the best way to play an effective mediating role between Israel and the Palestinians.

When Lieberman charged that Dean had broken a 50-year tradition of bipartisan American support for Israel, Dean shot back: "It doesn't help, Joe, to demagogue this issue."

But Lieberman himself, along with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina came in for strong stated or implied criticism from opponents of the Iraq invasion for having voted for the congressional resolution authorizing it.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who voted against the resolution and is the only Democratic candidate who calls for pulling American troops out of Iraq and replacing them with United Nations forces, directly challenged Gephardt after the former House Democratic leader talked about how he had tried to dissuade Bush from going into Iraq without a U.N. sanction.


Instead of voting for the resolution, Kucinich said, turning to Gephardt, "I wish you had told him no."

When all nine were asked whether they believed Bush had intentionally misled the country about an imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, only Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, the only other candidate who joined Kucinich in voting against the Bush resolution, said flatly: "Yes."

He said the president "knew or should have known" that no such threat was imminent.

In any event, African-American voters who often have complained that the Democratic Party has taken them for granted got its full attention here. The event itself was a recognition that a huge black turnout in 2004 can make the difference between victory or defeat for whichever of the nine candidates emerges as the party's standard-bearer.