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WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Edwards led Democratic presidential candidates in attacking President Bush's policies Saturday, but differences began to emerge in their strategies to force Bush out of the White House next year.
In two days of speeches before the party's most devoted activists, the candidates offered differences over potential war in Iraq and their own resumes and personal histories.
"And so, I ask you, and I ask the American people, are you better off than you were two years ago?" Edwards said in his address to the Democratic National Committee. "In two short years, George W. Bush has taught us what the W stands for: Wrong. Wrong for our children, wrong for families, wrong for our values, wrong for America.
"This presidency is a failure for the great middle class of America," he said.
Although most of the Democrats' fire was aimed at the president, the candidates will have to survive a crowded primary contest to challenge Bush. Their speeches included the first subtle digs at their Democratic opponents.
Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri said he's not a flashy, flavor-of-the-month candidate, a line that aides said was directed at Edwards and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who did not appear during the two days of candidate speeches because he was recovering from prostate surgery. Gephardt commended to his listeners his 26-year career in Congress, while Edwards, a North Carolina senator in his first term, said his lack of political experience is a virtue.
"If you think the only way to restore people's faith in our government is someone . . . who's been in Washington politics for decades, I am certainly not your guy," he said.
Edwards, Gephardt and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York City said their humble roots mean they understand the worries and problems of average Americans, a swipe at Bush, who grew up wealthy, the product of a politically powerful family. Their biographies also contrast with Kerry's, a leading contender in the race who also comes from wealth.
Sharpton said blemishes on his record -- he has faced tax evasion charges, had to pay $65,000 to a man he wrongly accused of raping a 15-year-old girl and was accused of inciting a deadly arson attack on a white-owned Harlem business with rhetoric about "white interlopers" -- should not disqualify him from the presidential race.
"Well, everybody in politics has baggage," he said. "Just some folks have enough money when they check into a hotel, they get others to carry their bags."
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a former mayor of Cleveland so little-known that he opened his speech by spelling his name, centered his speech on his opposition to the prospect looming of war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"This war is wrong," he said. "This war puts the lives of millions of people at risk, innocent people at risk."
Edwards, Kerry, Gephardt and Sen. Joe Lieberman support the use of military force in Iraq. "I know of lot of you here don't agree with me on this, but I do believe Saddam Hussein must be disarmed," Edwards said.
DNC members, interviewed after the last of the speeches, said all the candidates helped themselves, some more than others. Gephardt, whose candidacy had seemed stalled coming into the meeting, impressed many activists with a speech that contained more policy initiatives than his rivals and more passion than they're accustomed to from him.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's speech on Friday, in which he accused Democratic leaders of going soft on Bush, appealed to the left wing of the party. But he left activists wondering whether his antiwar, liberal message could beat the Republican president.