Friday, September 12, 2003


DES MOINES, Iowa — Democratic presidential hopeful Rep. Richard A. Gephardt delivered a stinging criticism of rival Howard Dean yesterday , likening him to Republican Newt Gingrich and linking the party’s front-runner to past GOP policies.

Intent on cutting Mr. Dean’s advantage in Iowa — as well as energizing his own campaign — Mr. Gephardt used a speech to a union audience to assail Mr. Dean’s past comments on Medicare and Social Security and tie him to one of the Democrats’ political bogeymen — former House Speaker Gingrich, Georgia Republican.

“Howard Dean actually agreed with the Gingrich Republicans,” said Mr. Gephardt, the Missouri congressman and former House Democratic leader who battled with Gingrich in the 1990s. “It was in this period when Gingrich said Republicans wouldn’t immediately kill Medicare. Instead, they would let it wither on the vine.” (Mr. Gingrich’s October 1995 “wither on the vine” remark referred to the Health Care Finance Administration, not to the Medicare program.)

In December 1995, Mr. Dean, then Vermont governor, advocated making government-run, fee-for-service Medicare a wholly managed health care program, saying savings from the switch could be used to help Medicare recipients pay for prescription drugs. Mr. Dean acknowledged that balancing the budget would mean making some unpopular decisions, including changing Medicare.

Mr. Gephardt’s speech represented his most direct challenge of Mr. Dean to date and reflected a strategic change by several of the Democratic candidates to take on the front-runner. On issues from the Middle East to race to tax cuts, Mr. Dean has come under fire from his foes.

Said Mr. Gephardt yesterday: “We, as Democrats, cannot afford any ambiguity on the question of who will better protect our seniors.”

The viability of Medicare, which serves the elderly, is critical in Iowa, which is ranked fourth in the nation in the proportion of its population age 65 and older, according to the 2000 Census. Only Florida, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have a higher percentage of elderly.

In a statement, a Dean campaign spokesman said, “It is a sad day for Dick Gephardt when he compares any Democratic candidate running for president to Newt Gingrich and his divisive policies. No Democrat in the presidential race bears any resemblance to Newt Gingrich on any major issue. And for Dick Gephardt to suggest otherwise is simply beyond the pale.”

While Mr. Gephardt was challenging Mr. Dean, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts took issue with Mr. Dean’s call to repeal all of President Bush’s tax cuts. Although Mr. Kerry didn’t mention his rival by name, it was clear to whom he was referring to during an appearance yesterday at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C.

“Middle-class families are taking too many hits already — their health care costs are rising, housing payments are higher, their jobs less secure and college is costing more and more. …,” Mr. Kerry said. “Unfortunately, some in my party want to repeal the tax cuts Democrats gave middle-class families. This is wrong.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton sent a letter to Mr. Dean Thursday, challenging him to oppose a plan to allow Internet voting in Michigan’s presidential caucus. Mr. Sharpton said the plan would give an advantage to voters who are wealthy enough to have a computer and Internet access.

Earlier in the week, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut criticized Mr. Dean’s comments on Israel in which the former Vermont governor said “it’s not our place to take sides” in the Mideast nation’s conflict with the Palestinians, a comment Mr. Lieberman said broke with 50 years of U.S. policy.

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