MANCHESTER, N.H. - The Democratic presidential candidates found common ground Thursday night, attacking tax cuts for the wealthy and railing against "special interests."
At times during the final debate before the New Hampshire primary, it sounded like the candidates were running against lobbyists and "special interests" rather than each other. The seven Democrats agreed the vague villains had too much clout in Washington and must be stopped.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the front-runner in most polls, said President Bush "has created an economy that feeds the special interests and the powerful and the corporate power, and he has not helped the average worker in America to advance their cause. I will."
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina attacked lobbyists, saying "there is something wrong with the impact that Washington lobbyists are having on our system of government."
With the New Hampshire primary five days away, the candidates sharpened their populist messages and emphasized how they would help key voting groups such as veterans and senior citizens.
After hearing complaints from Iowa voters that the campaigns became too negative, the candidates talked primarily about their own plans rather than attacking each other. The panel of reporters tried to get the candidates to draw distinctions with each other, but the candidates did not take the bait.
"This is a time where we are making our closing arguments to the people of New Hampshire," said Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. "I'm going to talk about myself."
Lieberman offered the strongest support for the Iraq war, saying "we are safer with Saddam Hussein in prison than in power."
But former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean highlighted his opposition to the war and said the Democrats should not be afraid to stake their positions. "We're not going to beat George Bush by trying to be like him."
Asked about how he would answer Republicans who say he is too liberal, Dean said, "Well, let's talk first about money. The president of the United States can't balance a budget.
"I'm much more conservative with money than George Bush is."
Dean tried to diffuse the controversy over his fiery speech after the Iowa caucuses by joking about his hoarse voice and acknowledging he made a mistake. "A lot of people have made a lot of fun at my expense over the Iowa hooting and hollering - and that's justified," Dean said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton poked fun at Dean's shouting and his poor performance in Iowa. "If I spent the money you spent and got 18 percent, I'd still be hollering," Sharpton said.
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who has been criticized because of his inconsistent comments on abortion rights, repeatedly tried to reassure voters he would be a loyal Democrat.
"I'm prochoice, proaffirmative action, proenvironment and prolabor," he said. "I was either going to be the loneliest Republican in America or I was going to be a happy Democrat."
Clark, a four-star general who commanded NATO troops in the Balkans, said he could broaden the appeal of the Democratic Party.
"I'm in this party now and I will bring a lot of other people into this party, too," he said. "That's what we need to do to win in November."
Lieberman, whose campaign has struggled to get momentum, tried the same approach. He said President Bush recently had told someone privately that Lieberman was the strongest Democrat. "Incidentally, this is an opinion on which I agree with President Bush," Lieberman said, as the crowd laughed.
Also participating was Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.