Democratic rivals take sharp aim at high-flying Dean campaign

Sunday, November 16, 2003

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Rivals for the Democratic presidential rivals were highlighting their differences and raising money Saturday, with the high-flying Howard Dean getting much of the fire and complaining of "gang tackling."

Six of the nine candidates headed to the Iowa Democratic Party's biggest annual fund-raising dinner, moderated by New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. They were making their case to more than 7,500 activists in a state where precinct caucuses begin the presidential nominating season.

Throughout the day, the politicians rallies, gave speeches and paraded through the streets. It was part political drama, part theater.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry took to the ice for a hockey game with firefighters, declaring he was "fighting straight ahead right at it."

"What's at stake in this race is leadership, someone who can beat George Bush," Kerry said.

For his part, Dean said he never anticipated the surge that sent him to the top tier of the Democratic field.

"I never expected to be in this position when I entered this campaign," the former Vermont governor said. "I thought I'd be trying to come from behind in Iowa and New Hampshire."

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards warned Democrats against becoming a party of anger, a trait often associated with Dean, a former governor of Vermont.

"If all we are in 2004 is party of anger, we can't win," Edwards said in prepared remarks. "I'm the only person up here who hasn't spent most of his adult life in politics."

Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri said he was focusing on his "big, bold ideas" and worked to shore up his backing with organized labor, staging a big rally with five international union presidents at his side.

"I have difference with some of the other candidates on trader, on health care and on Medicare and I have talked about some of those in the past," said Gephardt. "Tonight I am going to stay to the themes that I have been on, that I can beat George Bush, why he must be replaced and the big ideas I have."

Several candidates previewed their message before rural advocates.

"My nomination will mean a whole new direction for this party," said Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich.

"As we address the problems of rural America, we will address the problems of our country," said former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.

Backers rallied outside the cavernous hall where the dinner was held, waving signs urging her to join the race and declaring that Clinton has by far the best chance the party has to oust the Republican president.

The former first lady has said repeatedly that she has no plans to run in 2004 and will back the Democratic nominee. That, however, has done little to quiet the speculation or her supporters.

Most polls have found Gephardt and Dean bunched together and ahead of their rivals in the fight for Iowa's leadoff caucuses, with Dean holding a double-digit poll lead in New Hampshire.

Dean said a victory over Gephardt in Iowa, where the congressman has a near home-state advantage, would go a long way toward getting him the nomination.

"It would be a big boost to my campaign," said Dean. "I didn't expect to be in this position."

The attacks from his rivals are to be expected, given his surge in the polls, Dean said.

"You've seen all this stuff, gang tackling, coordination of the campaigns and so forth," he said. "That's just the way it is."

Dean said he is the only candidate running a national campaign, with all of his rivals focusing on a single state or region.

Adding to Dean's momentum in the past week were endorsements by the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Dean initially surged with his opposition to the war in Iraq, a stance he said is justified by a shift in public opinion.

"I think the country is beginning to change on this issue," he said. 'I think the country is now realizing the price we're going to have to pay for a very rash decision."

All of the rivals were going overboard to catch the attention of the thousands of activists and hundreds of reporters descending on the dinner.

After the union rally, Gephardt was leading a march through Des Moines' streets to the dinner.

Dean's backers came in a caravan of 43 buses, which required the campaign to get a parade permit from the city of Des Moines.

Gaining the most from the hoopla was the state party, which was taking in more than $300,000 from the dinner.

Not attending the event were candidates Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Wesley Clark -- both of whom are skipping the Iowa caucuses -- and Al Sharpton.

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