Originally created 02/29/04

Hopefuls speak on president, economy



Saturday was a big day for Democrats in Augusta.

Democratic candidates for U.S. president, the Rev. Al Sharpton and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards came to town and drew cheers and standing ovations from a full house at Tabernacle Baptist Church on Laney-Walker Boulevard.

"It is a flawed philosophy that we must be more Republican," the Rev. Sharpton said. "No, we must become more Democratic."

Mr. Edwards brought the crowd to its feet when he spoke on race.

"We have so much work to do," he said. "This is not an African-American issue. It is an American issue."

Candidate Lyndon LaRouche received an attentive but less enthusiastic audience that included members of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, which sponsored the forum in connection with its winter meeting.

State Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond spoke on behalf of candidate Sen. John Kerry, who had a previous engagement in New York.

All candidates had been invited to participate in the forum, even President Bush, said association Chairman Tyrone Brooks, who read a letter from the president stating that Mr. Brooks would be contacted when a decision had been made.

"Now that decision may have been made this morning," Mr. Brooks quipped. "Maybe Air Force One has landed down the street."

The candidates, including three seeking to unseat 12th Congressional District incumbent Republican Max Burns and a candidate for Zell Miller's U.S. Senate seat, state Rep. Mary Squires, D-Norcross, took aim and emptied both barrels on the president.

They criticized his economic and trade policies, targeting job loss and the failure of his earlier predictions of job increases this year.

Mr. Edwards vowed to fight for trade policies to help average Americans. He said when Bush administration officials issue optimistic economic reports, "they're talking about Wall Street, not Main Street."

"What we need to do is outsource this president and this administration," he said. "That's what would be good for this economy."

The president's "No Child Left Behind" education initiative was the fodder of jokes and jeers. Health care and tax cuts also received a fair share of bashing.

Candidates said the president deceived the American people by justifying the war against Iraq on grounds the country was in imminent danger from Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

"Now I didn't go to Paine College, but I know what 'imminent' means," the Rev. Sharpton said.

"Imminent means right now. Right here. Clear and present. Immediate danger.

"We were misled into believing that going after Saddam Hussein was in some way connected to Sept. 11, and that he had weapons that could destroy us."

At one point, the Rev. Sharpton referred to the president as "a despicable, ruthless liar."

Other speakers were Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights legend who exhorted the Democrats to "get excited" about the election.

Former Augusta Mayor Ed McIntyre, co-founder of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials in 1970, and former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson also spoke. Mr. McIntyre urged Democrats not to get fired up and then retreat into their comfort zones.

GABEO supporter Angela Wilson of Hinesville said the forum speakers said things the American people wanted and needed to hear.

"A lot of things have happened with the war and with our economy that just do not seem to be turning around," she said. "And we need some people in there that will speak up for regular people."

Liberty County resident Renea Camper said she just wanted to hear what the candidates had to say.

"I have already voted, and I voted for Mr. Edwards," she said. "So I just shook the hand of our next president."

Dorothy Floyd, of Columbia County, and her 11-year-old son Austin carried handmade Edwards signs.

"I like Edwards' optimistic outlook and the idea of bringing people together from all walks of life."

Tabernacle Church Deacon Neal A. McQueen called the forum "educational and encouraging.

"I was impressed with all the candidates, and I'm 110 percent behind what they all said," he said.

"And the main goal, however and whatever it takes, is to unseat President Bush."

Church member Gwen Allen said she was just pleased to be in the midst of "so many big officials.

"I just felt like it was an honor to be here and to have a good seat," she said.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylvia.cooper@augustachronicle.com.