Jim Bourg  /  AFP-Getty Images
Al Sharpton, left, and John Kerry, center, greet Howard Dean before the debate.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/23/2004 8:03:34 PM ET 2004-01-24T01:03:34

Howard Dean brushed off questions about his Iowa “screech” as he and his rivals for the Democratic nomination politely made their cases to face President Bush in the fall during Thursday night’s final debate before next week’s New Hampshire primary.

“I look forward to that fight,” said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, winner of this week’s Iowa caucuses and leader in the polls for Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primary as well.

Dean, the former governor of Vermont, trumpeted his record as a state budget balancer, but first he responded tersely to a question from Peter Jennings of ABC News, who asked whether Dean wanted to explain the caucus night “screeching” that has been the subject of widespread criticism and the butt of numerous jokes.

“We did have a little fun,” Dean said. “I thought I owed it to the 3,500 kids who came out and worked for us.”

Many of the questions in the debate focused on the candidates’ electability. The candidates were happy to answer.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut said Bush had recently identified him as the Democrat he was most worried about.

Citing his support for gun rights, Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolinian who defeated a Republican incumbent to win his seat in 1998, said, “I didn’t get to the Senate by accident.”

Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark strongly defended his Democratic credentials. “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.”

Five days to go
The two-hour debate, broadcast on Fox News and excerpted later on ABC, was held five days before Democrats and willing independents cast ballots in the first primary of the nominating campaign.

The Iowa caucuses shook up the race dramatically, and the debate’s opening moments suggested that it had caused a reappraisal in debate strategy, as well.

Dean and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri finished third and fourth in the caucuses after engaging in a late-campaign exchange of attack and counterattack. Kerry and Edwards stayed largely above the fray and surged to surprise first- and second-place finishes.

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Several of the contenders passed up opportunities Thursday to criticize one another — chances they might have leaped at in earlier encounters.

“This is a time to be affirmative. I’d say, ‘Nice try,’” Lieberman told one questioner who had invited a critical comparison with other Democrats on stage.

Dean, trying to regain his footing in the race, made an exception at one point in the two-hour debate.

“Someone earlier made a remark about losing 500 soldiers and 2,200 wounded” in Iraq, he said. “Those soldiers were sent there by the vote of Senator Lieberman, Senator Edwards and Senator Kerry. I think that is a serious matter,” he said.

The three senators voted in favor of the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use military force in Iraq. Dean opposed the war.

Kerry quizzed on taxes
The first question of the evening went to Kerry. Jennings asked how Kerry, should he be nominated, would counter virtually certain Republican criticism of his votes to raise taxes during his years in the Senate.

“That’s a fight I look forward to,” Kerry said, pointing out that he voted for tax cuts in the Reagan era that reduced top marginal tax rates from 72 to 28 percent. But Kerry said Bush’s tax cuts had favored the wealthy and special interests.

Slideshow: On the campaign trail

“He has not helped the average American advance their cause, and I will,” Kerry said, voicing sentiments echoed by Dean and Lieberman.

Kerry said he welcomed a debate with Bush in the general election over tax cuts, even if Republicans accused the Democrat of voting to raise taxes and increase federal spending by billions.

“If President Bush wants to stand beside me and defend” cutting taxes on the wealthy “instead of giving all Americans health care and education so no child is truly left behind, that’s a fight we deserve to have. That’s a fight we will win,” he said.

Dean renewed his call to repeal all of Bush’s tax cuts, a position that places him apart from Kerry, Lieberman and Edwards, all of whom want to retain cuts for the middle class.

‘No middle-class tax cut’
As he has argued before, Dean said there was “no middle-class tax cut in this country. Somebody has got to stand up and say we can’t have everything in this country. Somebody has got to tell the truth.”

Lieberman, asked whether he was satisfied with Kerry’s response, turned his answer to his own argument that he could defeat Bush.

“They can’t say I flip-flopped because I don’t. They can’t say I’m weak on defense because I’m not. They can’t say I’m weak on values because I’m not,” he said.

Lieberman, who is trailing Kerry, Dean, Edwards and Clark in the New Hampshire polls, also said Bush had recently said in a private conversation that the Democrat best positioned to defeat him in the fall was Lieberman.

“... Incidentally, this is an opinion on which I agree with President Bush,” he said to laughter from the debate audience.

Sharpton’s humor
The Rev. Al Sharpton drew laughter form the audience when he advised Dean not to be “too hard on yourself” about “hooting and hollering” in his Iowa speech. “If I spent the kind of money you did and only got 18 percent [of the Iowa vote], I’d be hooting and hollering, too,” Sharpton said.

Dean was the prohibitive favorite just weeks ago, leading New Hampshire by 25 and 30 percentage points before his collapse in Iowa. The third-place finish jolted the campaign and humbled the candidate — “I have warts,” he said hours before the debate.

By then, critics said, his flaws were obvious. Dean’s speech in Iowa had come to symbolize questions about his judgment and temperament. Democratic voters were looking for answers in the debate. Even his advisers were privately wondering whether their tired, frustrated boss — fighting what Dean, a physician, diagnosed as bronchitis — could rise to the challenge.

“He’s got to show himself to be presidential material again,” said Dane Strother, a Democratic strategist from Washington. “The degree to which the screaming was sent around the Internet, passed between friends and played on radio and TV is unbelievable. It’s one of those things that in the modern-day media spreads like wildfire.”

‘Strangest thing’
“That was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Donna Brazile, who helped run Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. “He must be tired — or something.”

Dean said he was simply trying to have fun with his supporters.

“I lead with my heart and not my head,” he said.

His advisers privately acknowledge that Dean needs a victory Tuesday to salvage his campaign. The candidate himself did not go quite that far, but, with his confidence shaken, pleaded for help to keep aspirations alive.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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