- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

Democratic front-runner Howard Dean yesterday dismissed attacks from his rivals over numerous misstatements and gaffes as evidence they were in league with Beltway politicians and “co-opted by the agenda of George Bush.”

“I opposed the Iraq war when everyone else up here was for it,” said the former Vermont governor during yesterday’s debate in Iowa, which holds its first-in-the-nation caucus Jan. 19.

“What has happened to so many Democrats in Congress is that they’ve been co-opted by the agenda of George Bush,” he said. “And what we need is a Democrat who’s going to stand up to George Bush.”

Mr. Dean also defended his comments that the legal case against al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden should not be prejudged, saying that as a candidate for president, he is “obligated to stand for the rule of law.”

Mr. Dean’s initial statement — that he resists “pronouncing a sentence before guilt is found” — ignited a growing chorus among his rivals, who all trail Mr. Dean by wide margins in national polls, that he cannot beat Mr. Bush if he wins the Democratic nomination.

“That raises serious questions about your ability to stand up to Bush and make Americans feel safe,” said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. “What in the world were you thinking?”

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri is running second in Iowa polls, followed by Mr. Kerry and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Also participating in the debate, held in Johnston and sponsored by the Des Moines Register, were Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Wesley Clark is not competing in Iowa, and the Rev. Al Sharpton sat out the forum and spent the day campaigning in South Carolina.

Candidates debated farm subsidies, free trade, education, labor and the environment, and each named his own worst mistake. But much of the attacks focused on Mr. Dean.

Mr. Dean reiterated his position that Saddam Hussein was “not a threat to the United States,” but rather, a “distraction” created by the administration that had failed to capture bin Laden. Mr. Lieberman compared the statement as saying the world was not safer after Adolf Hitler was defeated at the end of World War II because Josef Stalin still controlled the Soviet Union.

But Mr. Dean also softened his tone, defining his campaign as one “based on hope, not anger” and that he would beat Mr. Bush with “addition, not subtraction” by bringing his supporters into the Democratic Party fold.

Appearing earlier on ABC’s “This Week,” Mr. Lieberman said Mr. Dean’s “extreme anger” would not win the White House.

Mr. Lieberman is not competing in Iowa, but used the debate to challenge the front-runner on several issues, including his refusal to release sealed records relating to his gubernatorial business, which he called “a most troubling decision.”

Mr. Dean said the records were closed to protect advisers and the privacy of some citizens, giving as a hypothetical example letters from homosexuals during the debate over civil unions. He added that opening the records is now a court matter and out of his hands.

Mr. Lieberman, while admitting that letters from closeted homosexuals should remain private, accused Mr. Dean of “ducking the question” and called his answer “unsatisfactory and disappointing.”

Mr. Dean went further on taxes, saying without qualification that Mr. Bush’s tax cuts should be rescinded and that the middle class did not get a tax break and were worse off.

Mr. Lieberman also attacked this.

“I don’t know which is worse: that he wants to repeal the tax cut or that he admits it ever existed,” the Connecticut senator said.

Asked specifically what tax cuts Mr. Dean would endorse, such as a child tax credit, the former governor did not respond, but said he would balance the budget in the sixth or seventh year of his administration — a response that drew laughter from the audience.

Mr. Edwards joined the attack, saying Mr. Dean “has no plan to reduce the tax burden on middle-class families,” and Mr. Kerry, without naming the former governor, said that “we can’t go back to raising taxes on the middle class.”

Mr. Gephardt, a longtime foe of free trade, said Mr. Dean’s charges about others being Bush tools rang hollow considering his own support for trade bills that Mr. Gephardt blamed for the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs.

“Howard, you were for NAFTA. You came to the signing ceremony. You were for the China agreement. … It’s one thing to talk the talk; you’ve got to walk the walk,” Mr. Gephardt said, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Mr. Gephardt also went after Mr. Bush on the environment, accusing the president of “poisoning water with arsenic,” referring to a decision to delay for study a last-minute regulation from the Clinton administration that would lower acceptable levels of arsenic in future years beyond what the levels had been since 1942.

In naming their worst mistakes, several candidates named missteps that would actually increase their appeal among Democrat primary voters — Mr. Gephardt mentioned his vote for President Reagan’s tax cut in 1981, and Mr. Edwards cited his vote for Mr. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education bill.

In a twist of traditional debate formats, the candidates were allowed to ask one question of any other candidate. Mr. Dean used his opportunity to ask all candidates if they would “vigorously support” whomever is the party’s nominee.

All raised their hands in support, and Mr. Gephardt later thanked the front-runner for coalescing support behind him.

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