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  2d Dem Primary Debate
Title2d Dem Primary Debate
Start Date/TimeMay 03, 2003 08:00pm
End Date/TimeMay 03, 2003 08:00pm
Last ModifiedChronicler - May 24, 2009 10:59am
Description The second Democratic presidential primary debate of the 2004 cycle was held one month after the first, with the same contenders represented: Dean, Edwards, Gephardt, Graham, Kerry, Kucinich, Lieberman, Moseley Braun, and Sharpton. The event was billed as the first such debate because the organizers classified the earlier debate as a forum.


In the month since the first debate, Coalition forces occupied the remainder of Iraq, and the forces of Saddam Hussein surrendered. At the time, it appeared that military action in Iraq was nearing its close, but soon public services were shut off and the military started to re-establish them and stop looting. Two days before this debate, Pres. Bush appeared on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to declare that major combat operations had ended. In the background was a banner that later became famous: "Mission Accomplished." Bush's statements that day allowed the Democratic contenders to consider other issues in this debate, since at the time it was thought that terrorism was going to be a difficult issue to use against Bush in the campaign.

A national poll released just before the debate showed Lieberman in the lead with 29%. Gephardt was second with 19%, followed by Kerry with 14%, Braun with 6%, and Edwards with 4%. Polls also showed that Pres. Bush appeared headed for an easy re-election over any of the Democratic contenders [Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/4/2003].

Quick Facts

When: 8:00 to 9:30 Eastern time, 5/3/2003

Where: Drayton Hall, University of South Carolina, Columbia SC

Moderator: George Stephanopoulos (ABC News)

Audience size: unknown. It was broadcast by C-SPAN, South Carolina Educational Television, and a limited number of ABC stations after their local news.

Topics: Iraq, health care

Sponsor: South Carolina Democratic Party

Transcript: not available

Format: the first half of the debate was an "open discussion" among the candidates, directed by the moderator. The latter half was divided into three segments. Each candidate asked a question to one other candidate; then the moderator asked a question of each candidate; last, each candidate gave a closing statement.

Setting: the candidates sat on a stage behind a curved table facing the audience. The candidates sat in the following order, from the audience's left to right: Kucinich, Gephardt, Sharpton, Lieberman, Moseley Braun, Dean, Edwards, Graham, and Kerry. A large banner in front of the stage featured the ABC News logo, the year (2004), and the words "First in the Nation: The Democratic Debate."

Photo of the candidates in the second debate (copyright ABC News)

The Debate

The nine candidates mostly debated universal health care and the Iraq war in the debate, though there was much discussion of civility among the contenders. The debate was part of the state party's "Dem Weekend 2003" event.

The chief domestic issue was how to provide universal health care. Since it was so early in the campaign, only Gephardt had produced a full proposal on the topic. His proposal, which was introduced just before the forum, called for repealing Bush's tax cuts to provide subsidies to help businesses cover the expenses. He said "If you like George Bush's tax cuts, stick with him, vote for him. But if you want to finally solve this problem that's bedeviled our people for a hundred years, let's get it done - let's get everybody in this country covered with good health insurance."

The other candidates believed that universal health care would be the chief issue used by Democratic primary voters to choose a nominee, and they criticized Gephardt's plan. Lieberman said "we're not going to solve these problems with a big spending Democratic idea of the past" and said that he would not raise taxes to fund health care. Edwards said that Gephardt's plan "takes money directly out of the pockets of working people, and I know it gives it to corporations." Kucinich planned to phase in a 7.7% payroll tax to finance his upcoming plan. Sharpton pointed out that Bush supported universal health care in Iraq but not in South Carolina. Gephardt liked the attention, since it emphasized that he had taken the lead on a critical issue.

Lieberman took the strongest stand in favor of the Iraq war. He said "No Democrat will be elected president in 2004 who is not strong on defense." Proclaiming himself the only contender who supported both the 1991 and 2003 Iraq incursions, Lieberman contrasted his views with what he termed Kerry's "ambivalent" support and Dean's outright opposition (though he thanked Dean for having a principled stand on the issue). Dean restated his view that the war was not warranted and did not believe that he portrayed weakness in that stand. Graham said that he did not support the congressional authorization because he wanted broader language to include actions against Hezbollah and Hamas. Gephardt and Kerry both restated their support for the war. Kerry said he could "make the American people feel safe." Kucinich characterized the war as a drain on domestic programs. Edwards said "whatever personal differences exist, Governor Dean or Senator Kerry - either one would be a better president than the one we have."

Differences between the contenders were so sharp that they often displayed only a modicum of civility. In an interview just prior to the debate, Dean had responded to a statement by Kerry's campaign that he was unfit for the presidency by saying that Kerry lacked the courage necessary to be president. When Stephanopoulos asked him about this, Dean said "everyone respects Senator Kerry's extraordinary, heroic, Vietnam record" but wished that Kerry had not issued the unfitness comment through a campaign official. Kerry said that after all the political battles he had fought (in addition to his combat experiences), "I don't need any lectures in courage from Howard Dean." After this heated exchange, Sharpton asked them to soften their "cheap shots."

In answering other questions, no candidate supported a recent South Carolina law that made sodomy illegal. Sharpton was the only candidate who would support federal legislation to license and regulate handguns. [New York Times, 5/4/2003; Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/4/2003]


The debate had no real winners or losers. The Dean campaign sent out faxes to news organizations throughout the debate, pointing out the weaknesses of answers from opponents, but so many came that most writers ignored them. The practice did not die at the time, and similar messages have been sent out during later debates. The debate was not carried live anywhere.

Democratic primary debates of 2004: 1st, 3d, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th

Start Date End Date Type Title Contributor

Date Category Headline Article Contributor
May 05, 2003 04:16am Analysis Debate Bares Democrats' Great Divide  Article Tony82 

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