MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Seven Democratic presidential candidates debated last night over guns, the environment, taxes, Iraq, taking on President Bush this fall and, in particular, which of them was best able to unseat him.
What they didn't do, for the most part, was attack each other, in what was by far the mildest debate of the '04 campaign, held on the campus of St. Anselm College in New Hampshire.
With this state's primary five days away, and polls showing a large number of voters undecided or willing to change their minds, the candidates appeared to be following the lead of Iowa voters, who made it clear earlier this week that negative tactics could backfire.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who played the aggressor in the most recent series of debates in Iowa, where he was not competing for votes, turned aside ABC anchor Peter Jennings' repeated efforts to goad him into criticizing former Gov. Howard Dean or Sen. John Kerry.
"Peter, let me put it this way: This is a time to be affirmative," said Lieberman, whose campaign is stuck in single-digits in polling here. "I'd say, 'Nice try.'"
Dean's caucus-night speech in Iowa was a frequent topic of discussion during the two-hour forum, co-sponsored by the Manchester Union Leader and carried live on WMUR, the state's dominant TV station, and on Fox News Channel.
Dean was unusually self-deprecating, repeating a line that he used over and over at campaign stops yesterday: "I'm not a perfect person." He was asked by Brit Hume of Fox to explain another remark he made yesterday, that he leads "with my heart and not my head."
"Yes, I lead with my heart. I say what I believe. I think it's time that somebody in this party stood up for what I believe in," said Dean.
At another point, Dean remarked that "my voice is a little hoarse. It's not because I was whooping and hollering at my third-place finish in Iowa. It's because I have cold."
Dean, who has been sharply critical of rivals in previous debates, congratulated Sen. John Kerry and Sen. John Edwards for defeating him in Iowa and had warm words for the Rev. Al Sharpton as well.
Sharpton, whose attack on Dean in the last Iowa debate Jan. 11 was noted as a contributing factor in Dean's slide, came to his defense last night.
Sharpton, who won no Iowa delegates, joked that if he had won 18 percent of the vote, after spending as much money as Dean did, "I'd still be in Iowa hooting and hollering." After the audience laughter died down, Sharpton added: "So, don't worry about it, Howard."
Kerry, the leader in the polls, was more successful than his rivals in repeating the central points of his campaign message in this state. Kerry criticized the Bush administration's record on issues of importance to military veterans, whose votes are being sought by retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark as well.
Referring to a speech today in which Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie is expected to criticize Kerry's record, the senator said the Republicans "try to attack me and sort of label me ... because ... they know I present the strongest challenge to George W. Bush. I'm the only other candidate, besides Governor Dean, who is outside of the [federal campaign spending] caps. If I win the nomination, I'll have the ability to raise an extraordinary amount of money and answer them back."
Edwards, the Iowa runner-up, appeared more forceful than in previous debates. He defended himself against the charge that, after just five years in government, it was simply too soon for him to be president.
"Thirty-two percent of Iowans said it was not too early," responded Edwards. "I'm somebody who's been in Washington long enough to see what's wrong with it."
Edwards also said the candidates had spent too much time in the debate "talking about ourselves" and not enough about issues such as poverty.
"There's been no discussion about 35 million Americans who live in poverty very single day. ... We have children going to bed hungry," the senator said. "I understand [that] in some poll that may not be a big issue, but the truth is, it's important."
Clark, who skipped the last three debates, defended his credentials as a Democrat, a party he joined shortly before becoming a candidate, after having voted in the past for Republican presidential candidates Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
"I voted for Bill Clinton and Al Gore," he said. "When I got out of the military, I looked at both parties. I'm pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-environment, pro-labor. I was either going to be the loneliest Republican in America or I was going to be a happy Democrat."
Clark was asked why he didn't criticize one of his supporters, Michael Moore, after the filmmaker referred to Bush as a "deserter" at a Clark campaign event.
"I think Michael Moore has the right to say whatever he feels about this. I don't know whether this is supported by the facts or not. I've never looked at it. I've seen this charge bandied about a lot," said Clark, referring to allegations that Bush did not complete his required service in the Texas Air National Guard.
"Frankly, it's not relevant to me and why I'm in this campaign."
Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio asked whether the Democratic Party was divided over the Iraq war, answered in the affirmative. He went on to plug his role in garnering 126 votes from House Democrats against the Iraq war resolution.
This week, Kerry has vaulted into the lead in polls here. Yesterday, he picked up the endorsement of South Carolina Sen. Ernest F. Hollings and was reported to be in talks with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who quit the race this week.
The St. Louis congressman's backing would be valuable in Missouri, the largest of six states that vote Feb. 3.
Dean, whose campaign has been plummeting after his weak third-place finish in Iowa, tried to repair the damage from the disastrous election-night speech that has made him an object of relentless ridicule for days.
Fighting a bad head cold, Dean told supporters at two stops that he still hadn't recovered his voice from his "screeching in Iowa."
He and his wife, Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean, were interviewed by Diane Sawyer on ABC's Primetime Thursday, broadcast immediately after the debate. Dean also lampooned himself on David Letterman's late-night show, becoming the latest Democrat to read a "Top Ten" list. Gephardt made a similar appearance about a week before ending his campaign.
The debate was the first with a reduced field of candidates, since Gephardt and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun left the race.
No more dropouts are expected before next Thursday, when the Democrats will again share a stage, in South Carolina, one of six states holding delegate contests Feb. 3.
Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe has said that candidates who haven't won a single state by that date are likely to come under pressure to withdraw. However, with the exception of Lieberman, who might pull out if he fails to break through somewhere Feb. 3, it isn't clear that the field will shrink quickly.
Kucinich has said he intends to carry his campaign all the way to the convention in Boston this summer. Sharpton, who hopes to win some delegates in South Carolina, might also remain in the race, at least as long as he continues to be included in the televised debates.
Dean, whose campaign has set fund-raising records, is believed to have the resources to keep going for weeks, regardless of what happens in New Hampshire.
Clark, who is facing voters for the first time in his life here, is hoping for a strong enough showing to give his candidacy a boost in states where he has also been making a serious effort, including Tennessee and South Carolina.
Sun staff writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.