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Drawing a bead on Bush

Presidential visit serves as partisan lead-in to Democratic Convention

From staff and AP reports

An assembly of 400 of the nation's top Democratic Party officers rose to the rhetorical bait offered them, cheering at Bush-bashing offered live or by satellite from six of nine major candidates ranging from the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

"I really believe in my heart that he's leading us down all the wrong directions," Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, said of Bush. He criticized Bush for a "mindless set of ideas that are bankrupting our country and not creating jobs."

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean stoked up early enthusiasm. He was greeted by dozens of sign-waving supporters before taking the stage to attack Bush for what he called reckless borrowing to pay for tax cuts.

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"The Republicans can't manage money," he said. He also said the only way Democrats can win the presidency is to "stop trying to be like the president and to stand up against him."

Republicans were happy to have any extra attention focused on Dean. Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Ron Ebensteiner predicted Dean will win the nomination, but said it will only prove the party is too far left to defeat Bush.

In a news conference after his speech, Dean said while he often promises -- borrowing a line from the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota -- to represent the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party," his positions aren't solely of the left, noting that he doesn't support tougher federal gun laws.

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Sharpton also addressed the group in person, collectively presenting a liberal live show while Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Kerry and Gephardt offered a more centrist message via satellite.

Sharpton, seated on stage wearing a three-piece suit, got the laughs when asked about the deficit.

"I was born in a deficit, I was raised in a deficit. I've been in a deficit most of my life," Sharpton said. "In fact, I'm here on deficit spending."

Criticism of the war in Iraq divided the group. Dean and Kucinich said Bush has misled Americans about having evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Lieberman noted he supported Bush on the war.

Mostly, the candidates sounded similar themes, criticizing Bush's tax cuts, promising health care fixes and energy policies that stress renewable sources.

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Kucinich promised a "green deal" of environmental programs along with a government-funded universal health care program, universal preschool and free public college.

Lieberman took a more centrist fiscal path, arguing that some tax cuts are good policy and adding he doesn't want to go back to the big government spending ways of the past.

Kerry stressed his environmental record, saying he's worked to raise car emissions standards and helped prevent drilling in the Alaskan wilderness.

Staff writer Lenora Chu contributed to this report.

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