Democratic contenders debate in New Mexico

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(Host) Howard Dean took criticism on his trade policies and health care plan Thursday night in the Democratic presidential debate held in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But Dean’s rivals for the nomination were mostly subdued in their criticism of the former Vermont governor, who is now considered a frontrunner the race.

VPR’s John Dillon was there.

(Dillon) The debate was sponsored by the Democratic Party and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and it was meant to highlight the party’s outreach to Hispanic voters – a key constituency in the 2004 election.

It was the first-ever presidential debate with questions posed in English and Spanish, and most of the candidates tried gamely to work some Spanish in their answers. Here’s Howard Dean talking about health care in Vermont.

(Dean, speaking Spanish) “Every child under 18, 99% eligible, 96% have it. Everyone under 150% of poverty has health insurance. Every senior under 225% of poverty gets prescription help.”

(Dillon) Dean says he would model the nation’s health care plan on what he accomplished in Vermont. To do that, he would roll back the tax cuts pushed by the Bush administration.

But the proposal to lift the tax cuts drew fire from Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman. He dismissed Dean’s suggestion that the Bush tax cuts only gave about $100 to people in the middle class.

(Lieberman) “I disagree with Governor Dean and others who would adopt so large a program that it would force an increase in middle class taxes. That’s not fair. The middle class is stressed today. They got it up to here. And they got more than $100, let’s be honest about it. They got a lot of them – got thousands of dollars.”

(Dillon) Lieberman also slammed Dean for his position on trade agreements such as NAFTA. Lieberman says Dean’s proposal to have those trade agreements include American style worker protection standards would backfire and harm our economy.

(Lieberman) “That would mean we’d break our trade agreements with Mexico, with Latin America with most of the rest of the world. That would cost us millions of jobs. One out of every five jobs in America is tied up with trade. If that ever happened, I’d say that the Bush recession would be followed by the Dean depression.”

(Dillon) Dean replied that labor protection standards could be internationally based and don’t have to follow U.S. regulations.

(Dean) “I believe Mexico will do that. I believe Mexico wants open trade relationships with the United States, and I believe given the reform that’s gone on under Vincente Fox that we will in fact be able to negotiate with Mexico the same labor standards, the same human rights in Mexico. And I think we ought to do that. We cannot to continue to ship our jobs to countries where they get paid 50 cents an hour with no occupational safety and health, no overtime, no labor protections, and no right to organize. We’re going to lose every job out of this country.”

(Dillon) For the most part, the candidates seemed to want to avoid the inter-party squabbling that characterized their first debate in May. They focused their attacks on President Bush. Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt was the most forceful, several times castigating the president’s policies as a “miserable failure.” Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who has been sharply critical of Dean, held back in the New Mexico debate.

Kerry’s staff called attention to an apparent discrepancy between what Dean said in Albuquerque – that no more Americans should be sent to Iraq – with what he said earlier in the summer, when he said the U.S. needs to build up its forces there. Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich seemed to mock Dean’s claim that his record of balancing the budget as governor would work for the country as a whole.

(Kucinich) “You can talk about balancing the budget in Vermont but Vermont doesn’t have a military. And if you’re not going to cut the military and balance the budget, then what are you going to do about social spending? HELLO?!”

(Dillon) While Kucinich took a swipe at Dean, the former governor said after the debate he was surprised Kerry didn’t go after him. He said the debate format with multiple candidates wasn’t conducive to a detailed exchange of ideas. He also said he was surprised there weren’t more questions dealing with issues that affect Hispanic voters.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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