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Democrats have candidate for nearly any view on war

Washington Bureau Chieffritz
FRITZ
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By SARA FRITZ, Times Washington Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2003


WASHINGTON -- The burgeoning contest for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination offers as many positions on the impending war with Iraq as there are contenders.

Of the nine who've either declared (or plan to declare) their candidacy, some hold positions that are neatly unequivocal.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut says he supports the war, period. "I'm not going to oppose a policy I've supported for 12 years just because the person who happens to be the commander in chief today is a Republican," he says.

Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri is almost as resolute in his support of Bush. "I don't believe Saddam Hussein will ever do what we want him to do without force unless he is convinced he has no way out," Gephardt says.

On the other side, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio firmly oppose the war. In fact, Dean's stance against the war seems to have attracted more attention to his campaign than his initial focus on health care issues.

The Rev. Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois appear to be in the antiwar camp as well.

The other would-be Democratic standard-bearers are harder to pin down. Most of them support President Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq, at least to some extent, but they believe the president is handling the situation in the wrong way.

Some think Bush is too willing to act unilaterally, without the support of the United Nations or our NATO allies. At minimum, they say, his tone has been too belligerent.

Others qualify their support by saying the administration has focused too much attention on Iraq and too little attention on the terrorists who were behind the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

"The problem is, (Bush) has no vision," says Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. "He has no notion of what to do about the underlying problems, the underlying disease. If he's allowed to continue on this course, we will live in a world where generation after generation of people hate us."

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts says: "I believe they must take the time to do the hard work of diplomacy. They must do a better job of making their case to the American people."

As Dean sees it, Kerry and Edwards, both of whom voted in favor of the war resolution in Congress, are straddling a politically difficult issue -- hoping to have it both ways.

"What we can't have is somebody who says to you in Iowa, the Iraq war is bad, goes back and votes in favor of the resolution and then comes back and tells you at your county dinners why it's not a good thing," Dean said in a candidate forum in Iowa last week.

Sen. Bob Graham, expected to officially join the contest soon, is the mirror image of Kerry and Edwards. He voted against the war resolution, but he is not completely opposed to the war.

Instead of attacking Iraq, Graham said, he thinks the president should concentrate on eliminating al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations that pose an immediate threat to Americans living inside the United States.

"In my opinion," Graham says, "this linkage of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and groups like al-Qaida and Hezbollah -- with a substantial number of trained terrorist operatives placed inside the United States -- represents the greatest danger to our people."

If you cannot remember where all of these candidates stand on the war, don't worry. Even the most resolute among them still can change his or her mind.

If Bush makes good on his threat to attack Iraq in the next few weeks, most of these Democrats -- even Dean -- can be expected to dampen their criticism of the war and, instead, speak out in support of the U.S. troops fighting in Iraq.

Across the country, of course, likely Democratic voters may be as confused about the war as many of the candidates. Polls show many Americans would like to avoid war, even if they see good reasons for it. But that is not necessarily true in Iowa and New Hampshire, where next year's presidential nominating contest is already under way.

In those states where selecting presidential nominees is a quadrennial obsession, party activists prefer candidates whose views can be expressed on a bumper sticker. They will be pressing the candidates to take tougher positions, both pro and con.

As time passes, therefore, you can expect the battle lines are going to be drawn more clearly -- not just in Iraq, but on the home front as well.

-- Sara Fritz can be reached by e-mail at fritz@sptimes.com or by telephone at (202) 463-0576.

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