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Last Updated: Friday, 5 September, 2003, 09:06 GMT 10:06 UK
US Democrats attack Bush record
Dr Howard Dean, current favourite
The Democrats are struggling to find a truly popular candidate
Democrats hoping to challenge George W Bush for the White House in 2004 have attacked his record on Iraq in their first official debate.

Coming together in Albuquerque, New Mexico, eight candidates for the Democratic nomination differed on the economy, but united against Mr Bush.

Current favourite Howard Dean said that, in seeking support for a new UN resolution, the president was having to go back to the very people he had humiliated by ignoring their opposition to the war.

Other candidates who, unlike Dr Dean, had backed the war were also strongly critical.

DEMOCRATS TIMETABLE
Six official debates before end of year
Party elections (primaries) between January and March
Democratic Party convention opens in Boston, 26 July
Presidential election begins 2 November 2004
Senator John Kerry lambasted Mr Bush's swaggering approach to the post-war mess, the BBC's Justin Webb reports, while Congressman Dick Gephardt said the president had been a "miserable failure".

The president, Mr Gephardt added, had broken up international alliances that his Democrat and Republican predecessors had spent 70 years putting together.

The ninth candidate for the nomination, the Reverend Al Sharpton, was unable to attend because he was delayed in New York by poor weather.

'And Bin Laden?'

Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut - who, like Mr Gephardt, was an early supporter of the war - said he would send more US troops to help safeguard those there now and to help stabilise the country.

DEMOCRATIC HOPEFULS
Howard Dean,
former governor of Vermont
Senator John Kerry
of Massachusetts
Senator John Edwards
of North Carolina
Senator Bob Graham
of Florida
Senator Joe Lieberman
of Connecticut
Representative Dick Gephardt
of Missouri
Representative Dennis Kucinich
of Ohio
Carol Moseley Braun,
former Illinois Senator
Al Sharpton,
Civil rights advocate

The only woman candidate, Carol Mosely Braun, said the attack on Iraq had meant neglecting the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, whom the US blames for the 11 September attacks two years ago.

"We haven't been looking for him because we got off on the wrong track [in Iraq]," she said.

Senator Bob Graham of Florida - the only senator seeking the nomination who voted against the Iraq war resolution - said he had voted that way because it was "the wrong war against the wrong enemy".

But he said he would support the continuing funding of the troops there.

Hispanic vote

The debate took place in New Mexico, a state with a large Hispanic population which the Democrats' Al Gore won by a matter of several hundred votes in the last election.

US Democrats' debate
The Hispanic vote is increasingly important
Domestic issues directly affecting the state's Hispanic community were discussed, such as immigration, tax cuts, world trade, health-care access and education benefits.

Dr Dean was particularly aggressive on tax cuts, saying they should all be repealed and the money directed towards health care and other priorities.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry wanted to eliminate Mr Bush's tax cuts for people earning more than $200,000 a year.

The event was hosted by New Mexico state Governor Bill Richardson, himself Hispanic, and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

The entire session was televised in both English and Spanish.

Awareness problems

The next six weeks will see an increasingly intense race for the candidacy, with more debates, more television advertising and aggressive fundraising.

The Democratic Party has been concerned in recent weeks that none of the candidates have made much of an impact on public consciousness.

An opinion poll for CBS TV suggested two-thirds of the American electorate could not name a single Democratic challenger.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Matt Frei reports
"Not so long ago, this was considered unpatriotic"



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