No Mud, No Apologies At Democratic Debate In New Hampshire

Remaining Democratic hopefuls struck their most presidential poses in nationally televised debate Thursday night.

No hits, no runs, no errors. Clearly, everyone got the memo: Act like a president and stay positive.

The seven remaining Democratic hopefuls vying for the White House struck their most presidential poses in a nationally televised debate held Thursday night. And they took special care not to kick up any mud in the process.

"This is a time to be affirmative," said Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut after moderator Peter Jennings of ABC prodded him to criticize his opponents.

"I'd say, nice try," he added, receiving one of the loudest ovations of the night from audience members gathered at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, for the event.

It was the last such encounter before Tuesday's crucial New Hampshire primary and each candidate used the forum to try to seal the deal with voters. Twelve percent of potential voters remain undecided in the state, according to a tracking poll published Thursday. Other surveys show that many who have already chosen a candidate are willing to reconsider before primary day.

Entrance polls from the Iowa caucuses revealed that the issue of "electability" helped propel Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts to a surprise victory there. The strong performance by Senator John Edwards of North Carolina may also have reflected voters' thirst for a candidate who refrained from attacking fellow Democrats. During the final weeks of the Iowa race, Edwards received the backing of Iowa's only statewide newspaper, which lauded him for running an upbeat campaign.

A staid debate format Thursday precluded direct questions and answers between the candidates, helping to ensure that virtually no sparks would fly.

Howard Dean, who so often served as the other candidates' whipping boy when he led in the polls, was all but ignored by his rivals Thursday. The former Vermont governor found himself once again having to explain a raucous speech he delivered after the Iowa caucuses Monday night. A sound bite of Dean wildly gesticulating and letting out a guttural shriek have dominated the airwaves ever since (see "Remixers Make Howard Dean's Scream Funky And Danceable").

Dean reiterated statements that he was inspired by the "3,500 young people" who had traveled to Iowa to support his candidacy and said he felt he owed them an enthusiastic performance. He added that he made no apologies for occasionally wearing his emotions on his sleeve.

"You have to get out there and lead with your heart because that doesn't happen very often in Washington, D.C.," he said.

Throughout the debate, it was a cooler, calmer Dean on display. The former governor trumpeted his accomplishments as governor of New Hampshire's western neighbor. He emphasized his support for gun rights and reminded listeners that Vermont was one of the first states in the nation to acknowledge civil-union rights for gay and lesbian couples.

Still, Dean couldn't resist the opportunity to repeat his criticism of three of his rivals for voting to support the resolution that paved the way to war in Iraq.

"Someone earlier made a remark about losing 500 soldiers and 2,200 wounded," Dean said. "Those soldiers were sent there by the vote of Senator Lieberman and Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards. That is a fact. And I think that's a very serious matter. And it is a matter upon which we differ."

Kerry, who has basked in the media spotlight since Monday, also sought to play it safe. With polls showing him rocketing to a solid lead in New Hampshire, he had no reason to take chances. Instead, he emphasized his qualifications.

He was perhaps most eloquent in discussing his time in Vietnam and his efforts to oppose the war after returning home.

"I can pledge this to the American people: I will never conduct a war or start a war because we want to. The United States of America should only go to war because we have to," he said.

Kerry also appeared to try to perpetuate a sense of inevitability about his candidacy. At one point, he recited a list of high-profile endorsements he had received in recent weeks, including one earlier in the day from South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings.

For his part, Edwards continued to try to frame the 2004 race in populist terms. At one point, he completely ignored one of the panelist's questions to discuss the plight of the 35 million Americans living in poverty, a subject he has touched on repeatedly throughout the campaign.

"Instead of talking about ourselves, why don't we talk about them, the voters?" he asked, gesturing with both hands toward the audience.

Lieberman, who has devoted nearly all his campaign resources to New Hampshire but has failed to ignite much support, turned in perhaps his most effective performance to date. He effectively made the case for why Democratic voters should view issues such as the environment and social justice in moral and spiritual terms.

And he vigorously defended his strong support for the war in Iraq, noting that he knew at the time that it might hurt him with Democrats in his quest for the presidency.

"We made the right decision," Lieberman said. "We are safer with Saddam Hussein in prison than in power."

Former General Wesley Clark found himself on the defensive on several occasions as he sought to explain seemingly contradictory statements about where he stood on the war with Iraq. And he defended voting for Republican presidents, including Richard Nixon, in the past.

"I'm pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-environment and pro-labor," he said. "I was either going to be the loneliest Republican in America or I was going to be a happy Democrat."