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WASHINGTON -- Democratic presidential candidates clashed Friday over U.S. policy toward Iraq, with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean igniting a meeting of party activists by telling them to "stand for something" or fall again to President Bush.
The only major candidate who has not served in Washington, Dean told the Democratic National Committee winter session that party leaders have not been tough enough on Bush nor committed to party principles. Rank-and-file Democrats, stinging from GOP midterm victories in the fall, lined up afterward to shake his hand and offer their support.
"What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq?" Dean said.
Speeches by Dean and three Democratic candidates underscored a split within the party over how strongly to criticize a popular Republican president, particularly on an issue as volatile as war.
Donna Brazile, campaign manager for former Vice President Al Gore in 2000, said Dean tapped into the frustration of Democrats who felt their leaders pulled their punches in taking on Bush and Republicans in the fall campaign.
"Anybody who gets us off the floor and out of the fetal position, I'm for," she said.
Also speaking Friday were Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill. Addressing the DNC session allows candidates to burnish their image with the party faithful while trying to rally dispirited Democrats.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and New York Rev. Al Sharpton are scheduled to speak today. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is recuperating from surgery for prostate cancer and will not attend.
Friday, Gephardt told the group, "We must disarm Saddam Hussein," and he said he was proud to sponsor a congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use force, if necessary.
"Shame!" a member of the audience shouted. Fellow DNC members nodded their heads in support and gave the protester a thumbs up.
A growing number of Democratic activists oppose war in Iraq or at least Bush's approach to handling Hussein, forcing the candidates to shift constantly and reassess their positions. Gephardt has said he supports Bush's get-tough policy on Iraq but not his diplomatic approach, the same position staked out by Kerry, Lieberman and Edwards.
Lieberman faulted Bush for "weakening our alliances."
Braun, a recent entry to the crowded Democratic field, said Hussein must be "driven out of business," but accused Bush of "saber-rattling that has made us all hostages to fear."
In an interview, Dean said he opposes the congressional resolution and remains unconvinced Hussein is an imminent threat to the United States. He said he would not support sending U.S. troops to Iraq unless the United Nations approves the move and backs it with action. "They have to send troops," he said.
Kerry's campaign manager, Jim Jordan, fired back, "Gov. Dean, in effect, seems to be giving the U.N. veto power over national security decisions of the United States. That's an extraordinary proposition, one never endorsed by any U.S. president or serious candidate for the presidency."
-- Information from Hearst Newspapers was used in this report.
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman led the pack with 16 percent followed by Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt at 13 percent in a CNN-Time national poll of Democrats and those who lean Democratic.
All other candidates were in single digits: Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry at 8 percent; North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, 7 percent; the Rev. Al Sharpton, 7 percent; former Illinois Sen. Carole Moseley Braun, 4 percent; Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, 3 percent; Florida Sen. Bob Graham, 3 percent; and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, 2 percent. The remainder were for others or were not sure.
The poll of 529 Democrats or those who lean Democratic was taken Wednesday and Thursday and has an error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points.