Under fire from Richard A. Gephardt and John F. Kerry over his spending priorities, Howard Dean renewed his criticism of them for voting last year to authorize war with Iraq during a debate Monday that sharpened the arguments dominating the Democratic presidential contest.
In a series of pointed exchanges that highlighted the two-hour session, Rep. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Kerry of Massachusetts accused Dean of following a GOP approach to balancing budgets, while the former Vermont governor responded by tying the two to President Bush on the Iraq war.
The debate underscored the intention of Gephardt and Kerry -- Dean's principal rivals in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, respectively -- to challenge his hold on liberal voters by questioning his commitment to traditional Democratic spending programs.
At the same time, the encounter highlighted Dean's belief that the war in Iraq remained his hole card in the race -- and the principal vulnerability for the other top-tier candidates.
As in all their earlier forums, the Democratic contenders were unstinting in their criticism of Bush in the debate sponsored by the Democratic National Committee and MSNBC.
All eight of the Democrats who participated, for instance, denounced the Medicare reform package that is moving toward a final congressional vote. Kerry and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina spoke via satellite transmission from Washington, where they had remained to oppose the bill.
The ninth candidate -- Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who has pulled out of Iowa to focus on New Hampshire -- was not allowed to participate from Washington after he had initially said he did not plan to attend.
Lieberman expressed disappointment at that decision saying, "I always thought we Democrats were the party of inclusion, not exclusion."
The debate participants were fierce in denouncing Bush's foreign policy, with retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark perhaps the most emotional. Relatively muted while the debate focused on domestic issues in its first hour, Clark heatedly denounced Bush over the war in Iraq and his handling of terrorism.
"I warned that we were going to war without a real plan of what to do next and without adequate resources," Clark said. "Now we see the consequences."
Edwards added a note of caution to the anti-administration tide, insisting, "We should be angry at George Bush, but we can't just be a party of anger."
At another point, he said, "We have to offer a positive, optimistic, uplifting vision for this country."
After the debate, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie issued a statement denouncing the Democrats, saying, "Their message of protest and pessimism becomes clearer with each debate."
Above all, the debate underscored Dean's central role in the Democratic race. He leads in polls in New Hampshire, is running second behind Gephardt in the most recent surveys in Iowa and has raised the most money of the field.
On Monday, Dean was the only candidate to draw fire.
The major new element was the indictment from Gephardt, quickly seconded by Kerry, of Dean's fiscal priorities as governor of Vermont in the 1990s. At a speech in Cedar Rapids on Sunday, Gephardt charged that as governor, Dean repeatedly sought to cut Medicaid spending for the poor, as well as education funding, aid to seniors, the state's prescription drug program and welfare benefits.
At Monday's debate, Gephardt contrasted Dean's policies with the approach that President Clinton and the Democratic Congress took in their 1993 deficit-reduction package. "We didn't cut the most vulnerable, as [Dean] did in Vermont," Gephardt charged. "He cut Medicaid. He cut the prescription drug program.... He cut funding for the blind and disabled."
Kerry quickly echoed Gephardt's criticism. And then, broaching another issue initially raised by Gephardt, Kerry asked Dean -- interrupting him several times -- if he would rule out reducing the growth in spending on Medicare to help balance the federal budget.
Dean insisted, "We are not going to cut Medicare in order to balance the budget."
But Kerry continued to press, implying that while Dean was dismissing outright reductions in Medicare, he had not rejected the idea of allowing the program to grow at a slower rate than would be required to maintain existing services as medical costs rose and the elderly population increased.
Dean aggressively defended his record on Medicare and the state budget. He insisted that as governor, he had expanded access to health care while prudently managing the state budget.
"When you're the governor, you've got to make tough decisions," Dean said. "The people of Vermont were better off when I left the governor's office than they were when I got there."
Returning to one of his central themes, Dean argued that he had made more concrete progress on health care in Vermont than Congress had achieved in recent years.
But Dean seemed to stretch beyond the facts when he charged that Congress had done nothing on health care during Gephardt's long tenure in Congress that "benefited our state or any other state." That indictment ignored the Children's Health Insurance Program, which Congress passed in 1997 and which now enrolls 5 million children nationwide.
Gephardt cited that program during the debate.
In a broader sense, Dean's response to the attacks directed at him was to sharply denounce his rivals over Iraq. "Sen. Kerry is talking about experience in foreign affairs," Dean said. Referring to the congressional resolution passed last fall that authorized an attack on Iraq, he added: "His experience led him to give the president of the United States a blank check to invade" that country.
A few moments later, Dean broadened his criticism to include Gephardt and Edwards -- who voted for the resolution -- and Clark, whom he charged had indicated support for it. "This was an abdication and a failure," Dean said.
That broadside inspired an impassioned response from Clark.
"I think this party's making a great mistake by trying to make a litmus test on who would have or did or didn't vote for that resolution last October," said Clark, who has been criticized for sending mixed signals on whether he would have backed it.
"The real issue in front of us is that this president misled the American people and the Congress into war. This administration took us to war recklessly and without need to do so and it was wrong. And that is the issue ... we should be taking to the American people."
Gephardt and Kerry also pushed back against Dean's criticism, noting that the former governor had expressed support for an alternative resolution on Iraq sponsored by Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.)
Gephardt and Kerry insisted there was little functional difference between the resolution Congress ultimately passed and the alternative Dean supported. "It's no different fundamentally from what we voted on," Kerry said.
The main distinction was that the Biden-Lugar approach said Bush could not go to war without explicit U.N. authorization, unless he issued a declaration that Iraq presented a "grave" threat to U.S. security.
On other issues, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, a long-shot contender, repeatedly called for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq. "We need to get out of there, and the sooner the better," he said. "End the occupation."
Dean responded to recent questions about the deferment from military service he received during the Vietnam War. Dean was deferred because of a bad back, but spent much of the next year skiing in Aspen, Colo.
"Look, I did not serve in Vietnam," he said. "I was given a deferment by the United States government because they did not feel they wanted me in the Army.... I told the truth. I fulfilled my obligation. I took a physical. I failed the physical. If that makes this an issue, then so be it."
While all the contenders endorsed expanded legal rights for gay couples, only the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois said gays should have the right to marry. "We should be celebrating the fact that these people are talking about forming solid relationships, families, because families, in the end, will keep the community stable," Braun said.
Times staff writer John Glionna contributed to this report.