DETROIT, Oct. 26 — Democratic presidential candidates, debating here, harshly and intensely attacking one another Sunday night on the wisdom of President Bush's invasion of Iraq and whether Congress should have authorized $87 billion that would help maintain the war effort.
What had been an old and familiar struggle among the candidates over the original war resolution took on new vigor as the candidates clashed this time over the $87 billion vote, which exposed new fissures among the Democratic candidates.
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut expressed incredulity that two of his opponents who had backed the war, Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, had voted against the authorization, for Iraq and Afghanistan. And he asserted that Gen. Wesley K. Clark had changed his position on the war and delayed offering his opinion on a vote that has put all the Democratic candidates in a difficult political position.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio listens during the democratic presidential debate in Detroit, Sunday, Oct. 26, 2003. (AP Photo/Congressional Black Caucus Institute/Fox News Channel, Andre Smith, ho)
"I don't know how John Kerry and John Edwards can say they supported the war but then opposed the funding for the troops who went to fight the war that the resolution that they supported authorized," Mr. Lieberman said at the debate here, sponsored by Fox News Channel and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute.
Looking at General Clark, he said: "I've been over Wes Clark's record and statements on this so many times. I heard him tonight. He took six different positions on whether going to war was the right idea."
General Clark initially declined to say how he would vote on the allocation, saying he was not running for Congress, but later, under criticism for avoiding taking a position, said that he would have voted against it. On Sunday he repeated that assertion and praised Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards for their votes.
"Well, I wasn't in Congress; I wasn't able to vote on the $87 billion," General Clark said. "But I want to make it very clear: I would not have voted the $87 billion," he said. "I want to commend John Edwards and John Kerry and those who voted on the resolution. I didn't believe last year we should have given George Bush a blank check in Iraq. Now we're trying to give him another blank check."
Mr. Edwards, who was the first of the pro-war Democrats to announce his opposition to the $87 billion, also shrugged off Mr. Lieberman's attacks.
"My view of leadership is standing up for what you believe in, Joe," he said. "For me to vote yes on that would be to give President Bush a blank check, and I am not willing to give George Bush a blank check."
The exchanges came at a debate that was strikingly testy, as the candidates — by this point, well acquainted with one another's stands — struggled to break through the crowded field.
The 90-minute encounter on Sunday night was the fifth major nationally televised debate since early September.
From the outset, two of the candidates seemed most intent on trying to stand out: Mr. Lieberman, who immediately went on the attack, and General Clark, who was challenged on his credentials not only by his opponents but also by his questioners.
At the outset of the race, the leading opponent of the war was Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, along with the Rev. Al Sharpton, Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and Carol Moseley Braun, the former senator from Illinois.
Mr. Kerry, Mr. Edwards, Mr. Lieberman and Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri voted for the original war resolution; of those, only Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Lieberman voted to continue the financing. General Clark also said he opposed the war, but at several points earlier this year said he probably would have voted in favor of the resolution if he had been in Congress, as Mr. Lieberman noted when General Clark in the debate, sought to present himself as consistently anti-war.
Mr. Kerry, in defending his vote after Mr. Lieberman questioned it, noted that he had served in Vietnam — and that Mr. Lieberman had not.
"Well, Joe, I had seared in me an experience which you don't have, and that's the experience of being one of those troops on the front lines when the policy has gone wrong," he said. "And the way you best protect the troops is to guarantee that you put the troops in the safest, strongest position as fast as possible. Our troops are today more exposed, are in greater danger, because this president didn't put together a real coalition, because this president's been unwilling to share the burden and the task."
Mr. Lieberman responded: "This is about the votes that he's cast that I believe are inconsistent. In fact, what do we look back and wonder about our time in Vietnam? We didn't support our troops. If everyone had voted the way John Kerry did, the money wouldn't have been there to support our troops."
Mr. Kerry visibly stiffened at that.
Mr. Gephardt, who voted both for the war resolution and for the $87 billion, said that while he had severe problems with the way Mr. Bush had handled the war he did not believe it was right to oppose sending more money while troops were in harm's way.
"I think we all try to do what we think is right; that's what I was trying to do," he said.
"In the end, you're presented in the Congress with a vote, up or down on the $87 billion," he said. "And I can't find it within myself to not vote for the money to support the troops."
And Dr. Dean, who said he would only have supported the resolution if the administration had agreed to roll back tax cuts to pay for it, rejected Mr. Lieberman's suggestion that opponents of the money were undercutting soldiers in the field.
"I don't think servicemen and women do view my position as short of supporting the troops," Dr. Dean said. "I've made it very clear that we need to support our troops, unlike President Bush, who tried to cut their combat pay after they'd been over there."
At several points, General Clark appeared to struggle as he explained his views on the war in response to a challenge from a questioner.
The questioner, Carl Cameron of Fox News, asked, "Are we to understand that what you're saying now is that those things you have said that were positive about the war was not what you meant?"
Mr. Clark responded: "No, I always — I'm a fair person. And when this administration's done something right, well, if they were Russians doing something right, Chinese doing something right, French doing something right or even Republicans doing something right, I'm going to praise them.
"Right after 9/11, this administration determined to do bait and switch on the American public," he said. "President Bush said he was going to get Osama bin Laden, dead or alive. Instead, he went after Saddam Hussein. He doesn't have either one of them today."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company