Democrats Talk Pot, Red Sox, Iraq In Rock The Vote Debate

Eight Democratic candidates for president squared off during lively 90-minute debate in Boston Tuesday evening.

General Wesley Clark and Senator Joe Lieberman have never smoked pot.

Senator John Kerry would have pulled Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez in the 8th inning against the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

The Reverend Al Sharpton would like to party with Kerry's wife.

Those and somewhat weightier topics were covered by the eight Democratic candidates for president during a lively 90-minute debate in Boston Tuesday evening. The event was hosted by CNN and Rock the Vote and designed specifically to address concerns relevant to younger voters.

Several candidates teed off early on former governor of Vermont Howard Dean for a recent remark regarding those who publicly display the Confederate flag. Dean is currently considered the front-runner in the race.

"I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," Dean told the Des Moines Register during a telephone interview on Friday. "We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats."

Asked by a member of the audience to clarify the statement, Dean reaffirmed his desire to win back voters who have drifted into the Republican camp in recent years, including poor white Southerners.

"They need to come back to the Democratic Party," he said.

Sharpton, one of two black candidates in the race, was the first to rip Dean for the comment.

"I don't think you're a bigot but I think that's insensitive," said Sharpton. "I thought you ought to apologize for that."

"I make no apologies for reaching out to poor white people," Dean shot back.

A few moments later, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina strode past the other candidates to take center stage. Gesturing emphatically, he denounced Dean's comment, calling it "condescending" to assume that average whites in the South display the Confederate flag.

"The last thing in the world we need is someone like you coming down and telling us what to do," he said angrily.

"I understand the Confederate flag is loathsome," said Dean. "If we don't reach out to every single American we can't win."

The debate format consisted entirely of candidates responding to questions posed by young people both in person and over the Internet. Topics covered included the war in Iraq, gun control and gay rights. The only candidate who did not attend was Representative Richard Gephardt, who was campaigning in Iowa.

The candidates were given one minute to answer any question. As a result, the discussion rarely veered deeply into the vagaries of specific policies or legislation.

On the subject of the current U.S. occupation in Iraq, most simply reiterated their previously stated positions.

Dean reminded listeners that he opposed the war from the beginning. Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman and others criticized the Bush administration for not better preparing for a post-war Iraq.

The subject of the economy only came up on one occasion and only very briefly. Asked to comment on a recent Commerce Department report indicating the economy grew at an exceptionally strong pace from August through October, Lieberman said, "Until middle-class people begin to get their jobs back, then we don't have an economic recovery."

The debate format also included the playing of 30-second commercials produced by each campaign designed specifically to reach out to younger voters. Several of the spots contained upbeat dance or hip-hop music, quick cuts between campaign scenes and candidate sound bites.

Only one ad effectively used humor. In his commercial, General Wesley Clark is portrayed talking earnestly with a group of young people about his position on the war in Iraq and abortion rights. Then the former Commander of Allied Forces in Europe touches on another issue.

"I don't care what the other candidates say, I don't think Outkast is really breaking up," said Clark, maintaining a straight face. "Andre 3000 and Big Boi just cut solo records, that's all."

Late in the debate, the candidates were asked if they had ever smoked pot. Edwards, Dean and Kerry said they had. Sharpton, Clark, Lieberman and Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio said they had not. Former Senator Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois declined to answer.

A few moments later, a young woman asked the candidates to pick one of the other candidates whom they would most like to party with or have serve as their "wing man."

Kucinich put his arm on Sharpton's shoulder and said simply, "my brother," to laughs from the audience.

Sharpton then turned to Kerry on his right and said, "Mrs. Kerry."

Amid laughter, Kerry responded, "I'm going to have to choose you so I can keep an eye on my wife."

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