CRYSTAL CITY, Va. – The 1,000 delegates to a conference of the National Organization for Women here chanted “Carol, Carol” when Democratic presidential candidate Carol Moseley Braun arrived July 11.

Braun was one of four Democratic candidates who participated in a NOW presidential candidates forum marked by angry blasts at George W. Bush for using lies to trick the nation into a war on Iraq and for his open warfare on women’s rights.

“This is such an incredibly important session,” said NOW President Kim Gandy in opening the forum at a hotel across the Potomoc from the capital. “You are the women and men who have been the backbone of successful election campaigns,” she said. “At this critical time in politics, voters need and want to know where the candidates stand on the issues women care about. Going on the record as a strong supporter in these critical issues is a sure-fire way to mobilize women to get to the polls next year. There is no election more important to the lives of women than the 2004 elections.”

The other candidates were Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and the Rev. Al Sharpton. But Braun was clearly a favorite. “Is America ready for a woman president?” she cried. The crowd roared “Yes!”

The former U.S. senator and ambassador charged that the “extreme right wing path of this current administration is the path to ruin for the American dream. They have a tax policy that gave $87,000 to each and every millionaire while leaving no poor child a dime.” The occupation of Iraq, she said, is costing lives and $4 billion each month, “borne almost entirely by the American people. This administration has pandered to fear and used our grief from Sept. 11 to rollback the rights we fought and died for.”

Kucinich said the real “weapons of mass destruction” are Bush policies that have caused poverty, soaring unemployment, lack of health care and underfunded public schools.

Sharpton pointed out that Bush was defeated in 2000. “He must be defeated so decisively in 2004 they can’t use any trickery to steal the election again. … It seems lunatic to me that we can’t find any money for the 50 states we occupy but we can find $100 billion to occupy Iraq.” He called on the grassroots coalitions to “reach out to half the electorate that stays home election day.” Galvanize them to vote, he said, “and we will turn Bush out of the White House.”

The purpose of the conference was to launch NOW’s five-year “Drive for Equality.” Gandy explained, “With two branches of government aligned against us, and the Supreme Court precariously balanced, women’s rights are in greater peril than they’ve been in over a decade. We’re fighting back by launching a new campaign to preserve women’s rights through a massive grassroots mobilization of feminist voters – aptly titled the ‘Drive for Equality.’”

Breakout sessions discussed topics such as poverty, peace and stopping hate crimes. NOW Action Vice President Olga Vives told the peace workshop, “Women are calling for a feminist agenda for peace to answer the Bush administration’s exploitation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack to advance their right-wing agenda. They have a lot of money, our money, enough for war, enough for tax cuts for the wealthy, but no money for Head Start and family planning. I truly believe when people lie, it catches up with them. It is catching up with Bush. The weapons of mass destruction was all a lie.”

Cynthia Miles, a delegate from Georgia, told the World she lives a few miles from Fort Stewart, home base of the Third Infantry Division now deployed in Iraq. “They’ve had 35 soldiers from the Third Division killed in Iraq so far,” she said. “That’s an average of one soldier each day. You can’t put gas in your car without hearing people talking about it. They are saying, ‘It’s time to bring the troops home.’”

Alexandra Wishart, a high school student from Valdosta, Georgia, echoed that view. “We had rallies at the courthouse every Friday before the war,” she told this reporter. When the war started, she said, people rallied round the flag. “After people started getting killed there was a change. We can’t stand there and [let people] die! If we believe something is wrong, we have to act on it to make it right.”

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