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Dean Is Taking More Heat for His Hussein Comments

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Times Staff Writers

Howard Dean’s presidential rivals offered two distinct lines of argument against the Democratic front-runner on Tuesday, challenging him for opposing the war with Iraq and for having too little foreign-policy experience.

Dean took particular heat for his statements that the capture of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would not make America safer. Some rivals also hit him for being too willing to cede power to the United Nations.

But Dean did not back down, and he reiterated his statement that the capture of Hussein did not make the U.S. safer.

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Leading the attacks on Dean was Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democrat who has been the most consistent supporter of the war. Lieberman told an audience in New Hampshire: “I don’t see how anybody could say we’re not safer with Saddam Hussein in prison than loose.” A show of hands by the crowd indicated that most agreed.

Lieberman argued that Dean’s antiwar stand has become part of a larger problem for the former Vermont governor and onetime physician -- naysaying on many issues, without offering constructive alternatives.

“Dr. Dean,” Lieberman said, “has become Dr. No.”

Speaking in Philadelphia, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri took a different tack as the candidates continued to recalibrate their strategy in a contest unsettled by Hussein’s capture.

Gephardt said Dean’s contention that the seizure of Hussein had not made America safer showed he lacked foreign-policy expertise, highlighting the “difficulty that he would face in any election contest against George Bush.”

That argument, in contrast with Lieberman’s, allowed Gephardt to attack Dean’s credentials without broaching whether the Iraq war was justified -- and thus avoid angering antiwar party activists.

In Iowa, meanwhile, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts used both of the arguments against Dean, saying: “When America needed leadership on Iraq, Howard Dean was all over the lot, with a lot of slogans and a lot less solutions.”

Kerry said as president, he would chart a “third path” between what he said would be Dean’s over-reliance on the United Nations in setting U.S. foreign policy and what he described as President Bush’s “policy of schoolyard taunts and cowboy swagger.”

The criticism comes as Dean leads in polls nationally and in the two states that will conduct the crucial first contests of the presidential primary season -- Iowa and New Hampshire.

Philip Klinkner, a professor of government at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., said the capture of Hussein, combined with the recent endorsement of Dean by former Vice President Al Gore, have broadened a “fault line” in the Democratic race.

Klinkner said the danger for Democrats in painting Dean as a candidate of the left is that they are giving Republicans material to use against him, should he emerge as the party’s nominee.

Indeed, the Republican National Committee sent out an e-mail Tuesday calling attention to Lieberman’s Monday attack on Dean, in which he said: “Howard Dean has climbed into his own spider hole of denial if he believes that the capture of Saddam Hussein has not made America safer.”

Campaigning across Arizona and into New Mexico, Dean pressed his attack on Bush’s defense and foreign policies, assailing the invasion of Iraq as well as the administration’s approach to North Korea.

Speaking to an audience of senior citizens at the Sun City retirement community outside Phoenix, Dean reiterated his assertion that the capture of Hussein, while a good thing, would not make America safer. He also suggested that Bush had too often allowed personal pique to get in the way of his policymaking.

By excluding U.S. allies from the reconstruction of Iraq for opposing the war, Bush continues “to rub their nose in humiliation,” Dean said. He added that the president had been “petulant” in declining to negotiate with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Until Hussein’s capture, several of Dean’s opponents had concentrated on questioning his credibility on the war issue, charging that he had made contradictory statements about his position as the Bush administration readied its invasion plans last year.

Dean, in fact, supported a congressional resolution that would have allowed combat in Iraq, if Bush certified that he had exhausted all other options.

Now, rival Democrats are trying to sow broader doubts about Dean.

Speaking with reporters after his speech Tuesday, Lieberman said the differences between him and Dean had crystallized “over foreign policy, experience, commitment, priorities, but also over domestic policy.”

The central question, he said, is “whether we are going to go forward from where [President] Clinton brought the country in the ‘90s ... or whether we are going to go backward, which is where Howard Dean would take us in so many ways.”

Kerry pounced on Dean’s statement of a day earlier that he would seek U.N. “permission” for some overseas actions.

“To follow the path that Howard Dean seems to prefer is to embrace a ‘Simon says’ foreign policy,” Kerry said, “where America only moves if others move first.”

He added: “Americans deserve better than a false choice between force without diplomacy or diplomacy without force. We need to take the third path of foreign policy -- a bold, progressive internationalism, backed by military might -- that commits America to lead in the cause of human liberty and prosperity.”

Emphasizing this stance, he reiterated his call to add 40,000 troops to the U.S. military, which he said was spread too thin around the world.

Gephardt focused on portraying Dean as a flip-flopping novice in international affairs.

“His positions don’t demonstrate a person grounded in serious foreign-policy experience and expertise,” Gephardt said in a conference call from Philadelphia, where he was raising money. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to have someone with a real foreign-policy background and experience to be able to defeat George Bush.”

A senior advisor to Kerry’s campaign said fellow Democrats are unlikely to damage Dean among his antiwar constituency. Instead, the aide said, they are trying to chop away at another part of Dean’s appeal.

“The fundamental underpinning of [Dean’s] campaign is, ‘I am the straight shooter who will tell you the truth no matter what. And I have stood up for these principles the entire campaign,’ ” said the advisor, who asked not to be named. “To the extent that is demonstrated to be fundamentally untrue, he becomes just another politician. And that really hurts him.”

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Times staff writers Nick Anderson, Mark Z. Barabak and James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.


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