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Democrats Keep Hammering Away at Dean

Times Staff Writers

After a New Year’s Day lull, the major Democratic presidential candidates were back on the campaign trail in force Friday, some continuing to target front-runner Howard Dean while others pressed their own agendas.

Dean began what aides called a new strategy to avoid direct responses to the near-daily attacks on him by several of his Democratic opponents; he plans to leave that job to his campaign office. Met by large crowds during town hall stops across southern New Hampshire on Friday, Dean made only oblique references to his primary opponents and kept his focus on President Bush.

Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, campaigning in Iowa, delivered a biting attack on Dean. He asserted that the former Vermont governor had failed to answer questions about his commitment to publicly funded health insurance for the elderly, poor and disabled.

Gephardt has hammered Dean’s record on health care since the fall. Gephardt’s campaign believes the issue will help him win over elderly voters, who are expected to comprise a sizable segment of those attending the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19.

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“There is a pattern with Gov. Dean,” Gephardt said in a speech at a Des Moines hospital. “First, say something indefensible. Then deny you ever said it. Then, when it’s proven you said it, don’t tell anybody why you said it. And then go and say it all over again.”

In an interview on CNN, Sen. Joe Lieberman -- who has opted out of the Iowa caucuses -- challenged Dean on another issue, predicting that the front-runner’s position on tax cuts would hurt him with most Americans.

Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts spent the day in New Hampshire, unveiling a plan to eliminate barriers for small businesses and their employees. But his campaign continued its assault on Dean.

In a release headlined “Daily Straight Talk: A daily fact check of the records and statements of Howard Dean,” the Kerry camp criticized Dean’s environmental record, saying Dean was “more country club than Sierra Club.”

The two other major Democratic candidates, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, steered clear of taking shots at Dean as they campaigned in New Hampshire.

Clark, who like Lieberman is not actively campaigning in Iowa, is hoping for a strong showing in New Hampshire’s primary Jan. 27. Toward that end, he has been stressing the leadership skills he honed in the Army and as commander of NATO forces.

Having met its fundraising goal of $10 million for the final quarter of 2003 -- Clark’s campaign is planning to buy half-hour time slots to air a biography on him titled “American Son.”

Edwards disparaged the bitter tenor of much of the Democratic campaign -- calling himself the only candidate with an optimistic vision for America.

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“I think this daily sniping that goes on between one candidate and another is below the level of what this discussion should be,” Edwards said to volunteers. “People want to know what we’re going to do to change this country, and that’s what this campaign and election will be about.”

Dean’s campaign aides dismissed Gephardt’s criticisms as “increasingly shrill.” Aides also released comments from an Iowa nurse who was critical of Gephardt.

“It is ridiculous for Dick Gephardt to criticize Gov. Dean on health care,” Marcia Beck said. “Howard Dean is a doctor and a governor who actually delivered results on health care. Congressman Gephardt has been in Washington for 27 years and has failed to deliver anything but rhetoric.”

Gephardt, in his remarks, questioned Dean’s recent assertions that critics were misrepresenting both his record and his public remarks. In a speech last week, Dean had dismissed as “just a plain lie” Gephardt’s charge that he would cut Medicare.

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“According to Howard Dean, we’re all lying -- all the other candidates and every major newspaper in America,” Gephardt said. “The last refuge from an indefensible record is to call everything a big lie.”

Gephardt, who led House Democrats for 13 years, also responded to the Dean charge that the party’s congressional wing had failed to act on health care. He said that the continuing health-care coverage Dean qualifies for as an ex-governor wouldn’t have been possible without congressional action.

Health care is a central issue in the nine-way Democratic race. All of the candidates have major plans to expand health-care insurance coverage. Gephardt’s is one of the most expansive, offering near-universal coverage at a cost of more than $200 billion a year. He would pay for it by repealing all of the tax cuts Bush pushed through as president.

Dean also has advocated a repeal of all of the Bush tax cuts, and Lieberman took a new shot at that position Friday, saying it would hurt the middle class. In an interview on CNN, he said no Democrat in his memory has been able to win the presidency on a platform that would, in essence, raise taxes for most Americans.

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Along with Kerry, Edwards and Clark, Lieberman favors a plan that would repeal tax cuts only for families earning roughly more than $200,000 a year. Lieberman also would go a step further by pushing for additional tax cuts for the middle class.

Late Friday, Dean returned fire. In an interview with New England Cable News, he said his rivals “can criticize me all they want. They’ve been in Congress for a long time. They haven’t accomplished much. No health program, no jobs [program], they supported the war in Iraq.”

But the Democratic front-runner spent most of Friday focusing on voters. At a quick stop at a diner in Peterborough, N.H., he made small talk with supporters about the winter weather as he signed autographs. “I never wanted to shake a politician’s hand, but I do now,” one woman gushed. He walked down the line of stools at the counter to calls of “You’re giving us hope!” and “You inspire us.”

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Times staff writers Matea Gold, Eric Slater and Scott Martelle contributed to this report.


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