Economy stumps frontrunner Clark in first TV debate

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The Independent US

Crisp and cool, leading Democratic candidate General Wesley Clark watched as his main rivals tore into each other, in a debut television debate which spotlighted the struggle between centrists and liberals for the party's Presidential nomination.

Barely ten days into his campaign, the former Nato supreme commander has shot to the top of some polls, including one which showed him defeating President Bush in a head-to-head contest. But for the other main candidates on parade at Pace University in Manhattan on Thursday evening he was not the target.

That honour went to Howard Dean. And despite some heavy fire from his biggest rivals, Dick Gephardt and Senator John Kerry, the former Vermont governor survived the ordeal largely unscathed.

For General Clark it was a moment to present his credentials. He described himself as "pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-environment, pro-health" - a litany of standard Democratic positions.

Nonetheless the debate, which focused on economic issues, revealed how much ground the late entrant has to make up before the all-important first votes of the primary season in Iowa and New Hampshire, less than four months off.

As the general confessed, he has not yet formulated a detailed policy on health care reform, which could become a big issue in the campaign. Although he favoured scrapping Mr Bush's tax cuts for the rich to help pay for the rebuilding of Iraq, General Clark was notably imprecise in other areas - so much so that the moderators twice asked him to answer the same question.

But the main battle swirled around the pugnacious Mr Dean, front runner in Iowa and New Hampshire and way ahead in the 'silent primary' of fundraising. The third quarter 2003 figures due out next week are expected to show he raised up to $15m in the period, three times as much as his main rivals.

Mr Gephardt, from the mid-West, and Mr Kerry are under particular pressure. The former must win in Iowa to have a chance. Mr Kerry is in a similar position in New Hampshire, next door to his native Massachusetts, where he has so far been leading comfortably..

Mr Gephardt's criticism was especially stinging, as he likened Mr Dean's health care record to that of Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker and hate figure par excellence for the Democrats. Visibly angry, Mr Dean replied: "No-one up here deserves to be compared to Newt Gingrich." Moments later, Mr Kerry jumped into the argument, taking Mr Gephardt's side.

The sharp exchanges were not only a sign that Mr Dean is regarded as the man to beat. They also reflect the realisation that, for the first time, Mr Bush looks genuinely vulnerable.

Not only have polls put General Clark and Mr Kerry narrowly ahead of the President in a putative match-up: Mr Bush's overall approval ratings are the lowest since he took office, just 49 per cent in a Wall Street Journal/NBC survey this week.

In the battle to replace him the Democrats are dividing into two camps. "Old Democrats", embodied by Mr Dean and Mr Gephardt, want the complete rollback of the Bush tax cuts, and trade measures to protect US manufacturers. More centrist "New Democrats" like Mr Kerry, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, former vice-Presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, and General Clark, want the tax cuts scrapped only for the rich, and are keen free traders.

The argument could help General Clark, furthering the image of the moderate outsider, standing above the fray as his rivals squabble.