Wesley Clark had some pointed comments recently about his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination. As reported by the Associated Press, the former general said, "They're just carving each other up," and he added, "I've never seen anything more effective (in destroying the Democrats' election hopes) than when they go at each other about who did what 10 or 15 years ago." Indeed, they do slash and stab at one another, and this suicidal fratricide seems to intensify as the voting comes closer.

Most of the attacks are focused on front-runner Howard Dean. At a meeting in Detroit of African-American ministers, an audience where he might do the most damage, Richard Gephardt accused Dean, Joe Lieberman and John Kerry of making comments critical of affirmative action during the 1990s.

Gephardt and Kerry also savaged Dean for remarks made and actions taken 10 years ago, while he was governor of Vermont. In their recent Des Moines, Iowa, debate, Kerry actually baited the former governor, asking repeatedly if Dean would try to slow the growth of Medicare, as he proposed some years ago. Such attacks question the target candidate's candor and trustworthiness.

Wesley Clark himself has not escaped unmarked in this alley fight. He has been attacked by most of the other candidates for comments made praising Bush and Co. for the prosecution of the war in Iraq, and about when and why he became a Democrat.

When Dean (followed by Kerry) decided to abandon the campaign finance system he had indicated he would live by, Gephardt pounced on him, calling Dean "Mr. Change-Your-Opinion-for-Expediency" and noting that Dean was hoping to outspend his rivals; accusing him, in other words, of trying to buy the nomination.

That charge of buying the election is likely to be made against President Bush by whomever the Democrats nominate. The Republicans expect to have almost a quarter of a billion dollars to spend on the Bush campaign. The party out of power, namely the Democrats, doesn't have the same appeal to big donors among the special interests and is unlikely to raise anything like that amount.

Beyond that huge financial advantage, the Republicans will enjoy watching the Democrats further disadvantage themselves as their candidates continue disparaging each other, thus writing the Republicans' playbook for them. You can almost hear Carl Rove, Bush's top political strategist, saying, "Thanks, guys."

George Bush has an effectively united party behind him. Republican energies -- and money -- will be focused on grass-roots organization that can get out the vote next November, while much of the Democrats' energy will have to be devoted to overcoming the political fratricide of the party's primary battles.

Ideally, as this column has pointed out before, primaries should be about issues and some broad policy directions the party can unite behind, instead of questioning one another's integrity and fitness to serve as president of the United States.

Instead of waiting until its platform committee meets next year, the Democrats could be using these primary months to define their basic philosophy. As it is, time and money are being wasted as the primary candidates emphasize, instead of unity, a serious split in the party. There are those Democrats who believe the party's strength is its appeal to the farmer-labor vote. These, whom we might call the Old Democrats, include Richard Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich. Others believe the party's strength is the vast middle class to whom Bill Clinton so successfully appealed. These we'll call the New Democrats. They include Joe Lieberman, John Kerry and John Edwards. So the issue is: Do the Democrats maintain the Clinton focus on middle-class voters or go back to the farmer-labor-oriented policies of FDR and Truman?

But whatever path the party chooses, its hopes for next November are definitely diminished unless its primary candidates sheath those carving knives of which Wesley Clark warned.


Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at mail@cronkitecolumn.com.

(c) 2003 Walter Cronkite

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