John F. Kerry laced into Howard Dean on Saturday with a speech that questioned the judgment, temperament and political values of the Democratic front-runner, suggesting Dean would almost certainly lose the 2004 election if pitted against President Bush.
Ticking off a series of recent Dean statements, including his comment that America was no safer with the capture of Saddam Hussein, Kerry said, “You don’t have to listen too carefully to hear the sounds of champagne corks popping in Karl Rove’s office,” a reference to Bush’s chief political strategist.
“Someone who talks like this is going to have a hard time convincing the American people that he can keep them safe,” Kerry, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, continued. “This election is too vital for us to lose ... because voters refuse to take a gamble on national security and the steadiness of our leadership.”
The speech was one of the most pointed attacks of the Democratic primary fight and came at a venue chosen to send a symbolic message beyond Kerry’s strong words. The broadside was delivered at the downtown Manchester Public Library, 11 days after Dean stood in the same spot and assailed his Democratic rivals -- Kerry among them -- as spineless members of Washington’s “politics-as-usual club.”
Campaigning Saturday in Iowa, the former Vermont governor let aides respond on his behalf.
“Obviously, he’s got a problem if his message is simply to attack rather than to offer a positive vision,” Gina Glantz, a senior advisor to the Dean campaign, said of Kerry.
Dean later spoke generally about the barrage of attacks he is fielding from his opponents. “We ought to focus on what we believe positively and train our negative fire on George Bush, because all this stuff ... is not going to help the Democratic nominee when we all get down to the end on this one,” Dean said.
Joining Dean for a series of town hall meetings was New Jersey Rep. Robert Menendez, the highest-ranking Latino in Congress, who endorsed the former governor, praising his candor and “principled position” against the war in Iraq.
“We all say we want honesty from the people who are representing us,” said Menendez, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “Then when we get it, we say, ‘Oh, isn’t that a weakness?’ I think that this is part of what I find refreshing about the governor ... he’s straightforward and he’s honest.”
The setting of Kerry’s speech and his truculent tone underscored the stakes in New Hampshire, considered a must-win state for the senator, as well as the personal animus that has grown between him and Dean over the last several months of increasingly rough campaigning.
Kerry devoted about half of his 38-minute address to an attack on Bush, saying “the extremes of his administration have brought back the days of deficits, debt and special deals” for his “big-shot campaign contributors.”
“At home, he has taken us down a road of more inequality and unfairness,” Kerry said, speaking to a crowd of about 150 supporters who filled a small auditorium, spilling out of the seats into the aisles. “Abroad, he has taken us down the road of unilateralism and preemption ... where swagger replaces true strength and America is, indeed, less secure.”
When it came to Dean, Kerry was nearly as harsh, criticizing his budget cuts as Vermont governor and saying his call to repeal Bush’s tax cuts would amount to a tax hike for struggling families. Kerry favors rolling back just the tax cuts given to wealthier Americans.
“No, we can’t beat George Bush by being Bush Lite,” Kerry said, invoking one of Dean’s standard lines. “But we won’t beat George Bush by being light on national security, light on fairness for middle-class Americans, and light on the values that make us Democrats.”
Apart from policy, Kerry challenged Dean’s judgment and temperament, calling the decision facing Democrats “a choice between anger and answers.” He said Dean’s comments on the apprehension of Hussein raise “serious doubts about both his realism and resolve.”
He questioned Dean’s “judgment and sense of responsibility” for repeating an unsubstantiated rumor that Bush knew of the Sept. 11 attacks in advance. And he seized on Dean’s remark this week that Osama bin Laden should not be prejudged in connection with that terrorist assault.
“What kind of muddled thinking is it if you can’t instantly say that in your heart you know Osama bin Laden is guilty?” Kerry demanded.
“After every episode comes a clarifying statement trying to explain it away,” Kerry went on. “Will Americans really vote for a foreign policy by clarifying press release?”
By focusing on defense and foreign policy, Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran and four-term senator, hoped to sow doubts about Dean at a time when terrorism and the war in Iraq, which Kerry supported, have made security issues more vital in this presidential campaign than in any in a generation.
But Kerry also raised subtle questions about Dean’s character and one of his strongest political suits -- his reputation for straight talk -- by seeking to turn back some of the attacks Dean has made on others.
Kerry said Dean was wrong to say he was the only candidate to ever balance a budget or provide health care to poor children, noting that Democrats in Congress have voted to do the same. He cited what he termed Dean’s inaccurate claim to be the only candidate to discuss race in front of white audiences.
“These candidates are good people,” Kerry said of his fellow candidates. “They deserve better than to have their hard work and their records dismissed and distorted for political advantage.”
Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri also has zeroed in on Dean in recent weeks, saying he flip-flopped on trade policy, Medicare budgets and Iraq.
On Saturday, Gephardt joined Kerry in denouncing comments Dean made in the Concord (N.H.) Monitor about the need to have a trial before passing final judgment on Bin Laden.
“Once again, Howard Dean has made a statement that calls into question his ability to be a successful Democratic nominee against George W. Bush,” Gephardt said in a statement. “It’s very clear to the American people that Osama bin Laden is an international terrorist who has admitted guilt in organizing the 9/11 attacks and other acts of terror against the United States. He has bragged about his leadership role.”
Gephardt added: “A candidate for president should not be ambivalent about his fate. We are at war with Osama bin Laden. If captured alive, he should be prosecuted and executed.”
Later, at a Saturday evening campaign rally in Oklahoma City, Gephardt took another swipe at Dean, asserting that the former Vermont governor was one of several rivals who was a recent convert to what he called a “progressive” international trade policy skeptical of accords such as the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and the normalization of trade with China in 2000.
Gephardt, an opponent of those deals, accused Dean of supporting NAFTA and the China agreement when they were before Congress but now expressing doubts about them.
“It’s one thing to talk the talk; it’s another thing to walk the walk,” Gephardt said.
Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report from Oklahoma City. Barabak reported from New Hampshire, Gold from Iowa.