ALBUQUERQUE — Democratic presidential contenders, appearing in their first nationally televised debate, overwhelmingly denounced President Bush Thursday night for his handling of the war in Iraq and economic policy. They avoided angry exchanges with one another, however, even as they tried to distinguish themselves in a crowded field.
One of the few notable disagreements among the eight participants was over free trade and job creation.
Two of the contenders, Reps. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, blamed the North American Free Trade Agreement for chasing manufacturing jobs abroad — a subject dear to many union workers who play a role in the Democratic primary.
But few sparks flew, despite predictions of a showdown between former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the two closest rivals for front-runner status in fund-raising and the polls. Instead, Dean and Kerry — as well as the other candidates onstage — sought to outdo each other in their criticism of Bush, ridiculing and attacking the president as bungling the war effort, foreign policy, the economy, trade issues, and health care.
"This president is going to have to go back to the very people he humiliated — our allies — on the way into Iraq and hope they will now agree with us that we need their help," Dean said at the start of a half-hour segment that focused on Iraq and military policy.
"This president is a miserable failure," Gephardt said.
"It would be wonderful to have a president of the United States who could find the rest of the countries in this hemisphere," Kerry said.
The debate, broadcast from the campus of the University of New Mexico, appeared to do little to shift the political landscape and yielded almost no news from the eight contenders in attendance.
Only the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York, whose flight was affected by foul weather, did not appear.
It did, however, showcase the candidates together on national television for the first time more than a year before the final vote in the November 2004 contest — adding new momentum to a Democratic primary race that has begun earlier than ever and is in full swing in more than a half-dozen states.
While fund-raising totals and polling results catapulted Dean ahead during the summer, other candidates maintained that voters have not begun paying attention until now, making the debate an important proving ground four months before the first primary contest. At least five more debates are scheduled in the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses.
"I really think it's a television debut for all . . . of them," Kathleen Sullivan, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said of the candidates. "The spotlight is on Governor Dean generally right now because he is the front-runner, but I think that it's really an introductory debate for everybody. Labor Day is behind us, and now people are really starting to pay attention."
If the debate failed to highlight sharp differences between the campaigns, it did give the Democratic Party an opportunity to target those who will be key in the general election — voters in New Mexico, an important battleground state, and Hispanics, who represent an increasing share of the electorate and who have been heavily wooed by Bush.
The debate was broadcast in Spanish by Univision, the Spanish-language station that sponsored the event.
Several of the candidates, eager to appeal to the Hispanic audience for which the debate was held, attempted to deliver their arguments in Spanish.
It was not quite a traditional debate: Instead of direct confrontation between the candidates, the forum allowed for a discussion of current affairs, controlled by a moderator.
The event did lead to the elimination of a potential vice presidential candidate: Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, the former congressman and United Nations representative.
Local airwaves had been filled with speculation that his courtship of the debate was a prelude to him seeking to serve as a running mate to the eventual nominee, but in the run-up to the debate he flatly ruled out the possibility.
"I'm not going to accept a spot on the ticket," Richardson told the Albuquerque Journal. "I'm very firm. I'll reiterate it to anyone who asks: I'm committed to run for reelection (in 2006)." Richardson will serve as chairman of the Democratic National Convention next July in Boston, and he said, "I think running the convention rules out any spot on a ticket."
Kerry, fresh off a four-state, two-day tour publicly declaring his candidacy, paid a pre-debate visit to a Head Start facility in Albuquerque. He listened as government officials complained about long waiting lists for services despite evidence participation in the program makes children better students.