Distinguishing Democrats

While few Americans are paying attention, the Democratic primary contest seems to be foundering.

The nine candidates spoke Saturday, live or by video, before an unabashedly liberal crowd in Des Moines, Iowa, assembled by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, an AFL-CIO union.

Unlike the recent South Carolina debate, where the Democrats spent a great deal of time bashing each other, the Des Moines event saw them concentrating their fire on President Bush and the Republicans. According to the press reports, the crowd loved it - the harsher the attack, the better.

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This type of event favors fringe candidates spouting leftist sound bites - candidates like Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York - at the expense of those who could actually win a presidential election. Indeed, a focus group at the event gave Messrs. Kucinich and Sharpton the highest marks, with Rep. Richard Gephardt - a neighbor from Missouri who is well known in Iowa and represents mainstream Democrats - in third place.

But if the Democrats really want to capture the White House in 2004, they should think twice about staging many more events like this. Rallying Democrats against President Bush isn't the point. It's to demonstrate to party loyalists what distinguishes each candidate from the rest of the pack - why he or she should be the party's standard-bearer.

For example, at least four candidates - Mr. Gephardt, Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Mr. Kucinich - have now unveiled detailed proposals for expanding healthcare coverage. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida will reveal similar plans soon.

Each candidate should be required to explain his or her plan and defend it against critics. And all should be ready to discuss how to pay for it. Some, for example, would repeal the 2001 tax cuts. But if the country couldn't afford those two-year-old cuts, as many Democrats hold, how can it afford expanding healthcare coverage using the same money?

It's all well and good to say the candidates should criticize Republicans and not each other. But unless the Democrats draw clear distinctions among themselves, none will inspire the enthusiasm and momentum that will carry him or her to the nomination, let alone to the presidency.

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