Democrats focus attack on Bush during debate

? With the contested phase of the presidential primary season quickly coming to a close, the Democrats struggling to catch front-runner John Kerry offered no burning, last-minute pleas on Sunday to the Wisconsin voters who may be all that stand in the way of the Massachusetts senator being crowned the party’s nominee.

Howard Dean, who has made a pastime of aggressively confronting Kerry for supporting the war in Iraq and for being a Washington insider, kept his tongue in check throughout a 90-minute debate here. It was, in fact, 51 minutes into the televised session before John Edwards reminded voters that a race still was under way.

“Not so fast, John Kerry,” Edwards said, shooting a glance at his confident rival. “We’re going to have an election here in Wisconsin this Tuesday, and we got a whole group of primaries coming up. I, for one, intend to fight with everything I’ve got for every one of those votes.”

But as the five Democratic presidential hopefuls gathered Sunday evening on a stage at Marquette University, there were few signs the 2004 primary campaign remained spirited or volatile. Instead, Dean came to Kerry’s aid during the opening moments of the debate after the former Vermont governor’s aides had spent the day discussing whether he would remain in the race.

“I think George Bush has some nerve attacking anybody on special interests,” Dean said, responding to a new charge by the Bush campaign that Kerry took contributions from interest groups. Only days ago, it was Dean who had accused Kerry of being part of a “corrupt political culture.”

In a monthlong electoral sweep from Iowa to New Hampshire and beyond, Kerry has won 14 primaries and caucuses as he advances toward the nomination. His sweeping momentum has changed the dynamic of the Democratic campaign, forcing three candidates from the race and making him the early target of the Bush administration.

Bush’s service

Indeed, it was Bush who seemed to consume Kerry’s thoughts here Sunday. As controversy swirls over the president’s service in the National Guard three decades ago, Kerry accused Bush of repeating the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq.

“I would say that this president, regrettably, has perhaps not learned some of the lessons of that period of time,” Kerry said, “when we had a very difficult war.”

From left, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, John Edwards, Al Sharpton and Howard Dean line up before a Democratic presidential candidate debate at Marquette University in Milwaukee. During Sunday's debate, the contenders targeted criticism at President Bush rather than one another.

Bush’s service in the National Guard has emerged as a campaign issue in recent days as questions have resurfaced about whether he actually reported for duty and served during what was to be a yearlong stint in Alabama. The White House on Friday released additional documents, insisting they proved Bush served and was honorably discharged.

But Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, said he objected to Democratic accusations that Bush had gone AWOL and indicated he would not make it a campaign issue in the future.

“I have suggested to some people who are my advocates, who’ve gone (on) that line of attack, it’s not one that I plan to do,” Kerry said. “I don’t plan to do that and I’ve asked them not to.”

Edwards, who has framed his candidacy around a positive message of optimism, said Bush’s honesty was a valid campaign issue, whether it was his service in the guard or his arguments for invading Iraq.

“This president has said one of the most critical things, not only for a candidate for president, for the president of the United States, is his integrity, whether he can be trusted,” Edwards said.

The debate, sponsored by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and WTMJ-TV, was the 15th of the primary campaign. The stage was less crowded than in any previous meeting as the field of candidates has slowly been whittled from nine to five.

Kerry came into the debate leading by as much as 30 percentage points in Wisconsin polls, which show Edwards and Dean lagging far behind. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and civil rights activist Al Sharpton of New York also remain in the race.