Though the seven Democrats present at the debate, all of whom are vying for the right to fight George Bush in next year’s presidential election, differed on trade and taxation issues they were united in their most vociferous condemnation yet of the current president.

"We have young men and women in a shooting gallery right now, and the primary reason for that is because this president had no plan," said North Carolina Senator John Edwards in the debate held at New Mexico University. He was referring to the slow and cumbersome  rebuilding effort in Iraq.

The hopefuls focused on the worsening security situation in Iraq, Bush’s tax cuts which most Democrats say should have been used to bolster health care, and deteriorating relations with former European allies.

Push for Hispanics

Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman attacked Former governor of Vermont Howard Dean – the strongest Democratic hopeful so far - on trade and taxes.

"Had we not taken action, this economy would have been in a deeper recession"

George Bush,
US president

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts attacked Bush on the jobless economic recovery, pointing out that stock prices had risen sharply over the past month.

"You know, it's interesting that the Standard & Poor's went up to 1000, and the Dow went up to 9400, which proves that good things happen when George Bush is on vacation, folks," he said.
   
The debate was hosted by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and highlights the Democratic Party's push to attract Hispanic voters, the nation's largest minority.

Bush defence

Bush, in an interview with CNBC, defended his economic policies saying that the burgeoning budget deficit, projected to reach $500 billion in the next ten years, is “nobody’s fault”.

"Because we did act, the recession was one of the shallowest in modern economic history," he said.

"Had we not taken action, this economy would have been in a deeper recession. It would have been longer and as many as 1.5 million Americans who went to work this morning would have been out of a job," Bush said.
   
The US economy, the world’s largest, slid into recession in March 2001.

'Jobless' recovery

Though the economic slump officially ended in November 2001 (a recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of contraction), companies have continued firing to cut costs.

Bush’s father presided over a similar “jobless” recovery in the early 1990’s. He was defeated shortly afterwards.

Democrats and Republicans alike have said they expect reconstruction to cost some $100 billion.

In a separate incident, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress said Bush would likely get the money he is expected to seek for Iraq.

“We have to succeed,” former Secretary of Defence William Cohen said last week in an interview. “Nobody wants to think about what failure could mean for the region.”

Bush told CNBC that a final figure had yet to be decided on, though analysts suggest his administration will ask Congress to approve some $65 billion for the coming year.

Democrats and Republicans alike have said they expect this figure to be nearer $100 billion.