Dean tested in first national debate

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(Host) The stakes were high this past weekend for former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. He went into the first presidential debate in Columbia, South Carolina as a candidate who’s untested on the national stage. The viewers who watched the late night face-off saw some sharp exchanges between Dean and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Political observers in South Carolina say no clear winner emerged from the debate and that Dean may have benefited from the controversy with Kerry.

VPR’s John Dillon was there:

(Dillon) The tension between Kerry and Dean surfaced early in the 90 minute debate. The two are rivals in New Hampshire, the key early primary state. And in recent weeks, Kerry’s aides have questioned Dean’s fitness to serve as commander in chief because Dean has said the U.S. may not always have the strongest military.

In the debate, Kerry continued to challenge Dean’s national security credentials:

(Kerry) “I believe that anybody who thinks we have to prepare for the day that we’re not the strongest is preparing for a day when we have serious problems.”

(Dillon) Dean fired back with a quote from a Kerry speech in January in which Dean says the Massachusetts senator also acknowledged that U.S. influence will diminish if it continues to pursue a unilateral foreign policy. He says Kerry’s campaign was wrong to criticize his presidential qualifications.

(Dean) “I would have preferred, if Senator Kerry had some concerns about my fitness to serve, he would have brought those to me directly rather than through his spokesman.”

(Dillon) Prodded by ABC news host George Stephanopolous, the exchange continued to slide from policy to personality. Kerry reacted strongly to what he says was Dean’s charge that he lacked courage on issues of gay rights. Kerry is a Vietnam War veteran, who won medals for bravery in combat.

(Kerry) “When he questions my courage, I really think that anybody who has measured the tests that I think I have performed in the last few years on any number of fights in the United States Congress, as well as my service in Vietnam that I don’t need any lectures on courage from Howard Dean.”

(Dillon) That round brought a plea for peace from some of the other candidates. Senator John Edwards from North Carolina and Senator Bob Graham from Florida both tried to calm the tension between Kerry and Dean. The Reverend Al Sharpton also tried to be the peacemaker.

(Sharpton) “Republicans are watching – let’s not start fighting and going at each other.” (Sound of laughter in the audience.) “Let’s not have the bottom line tonight be that George Bush won because we were taking cheap shots at each other.”

(Dillon) Even as the candidates faced off on stage, the spin cycle of the debate began. Campaign aides scurried through a crowded media center distributing fact sheets and fresh attacks on their opponents’ records.

And after the debate ended, some of the candidates themselves emerged for spin control. Kerry was absent from the post debate fray. But Dean told reporters that he doesn’t have a personality conflict with the Massachusetts senator.

(Dean) “It’s not personal as far as I’m concerned. I didn’t initiate any attacks against John. I mainly defended myself against John and I’m happy to do it. I think John is surprised that I’m suddenly tied with him in New Hampshire and that I’m doing well in states that he didn’t expect. And they’re worried about that.”

(Dillon) Political observers in South Carolina say no candidate was the solid winner; most ranked Dean’s performance as fair, but not outstanding. Phil Noble of the South Carolina Democratic Leadership Council says Kerry’s intense focus on Dean may actually help the Vermonter.

(Noble) “In one sense, I thought Dean could be construed as the winner, in that everybody was talking about him, particularly at the first. From his perspective, I think he was very much in the hunt, in terms of playing first level ball. And I think for him that’s a real success.”

(Dillon) In the debate, and throughout his campaign swing in South Carolina, Dean tried to paint himself as the only candidate who’s consistently challenged a popular president on the Iraq war and President Bush’s tax cuts.

Dean says he’s from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. But Florida Senator Bob Graham made an indirect attack on Dean. He says the party needs a candidate from the south to win the White House in 2004. Graham says that he is from the electable wing of the Democratic Party. And Connecticut Senator Joe Leiberman says Dean’s opposition to the war will hurt the party next year. He says no candidate will win unless he or she is strong on national defense.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Columbia, South Carolina.

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