JOHNSTON, Iowa -- In a feisty, first debate of the election year, Howard Dean drew fire from fellow Democrats on Sunday over trade, terror, taxes and more, then calmly dismissed his rivals as "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, invoking the issue that helped fuel his 2003 transformation from asterisk in the polls to front-runner.
Dean's all-purpose rebuttal came midway through a debate 15 days before the Iowa caucuses, the first contest for national convention delegates who will select a Democratic challenger to President Bush.
The narrow window for campaigning prompted Dean's pursuers to attack him from the opening moments of The Des Moines Register-sponsored debate.
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said the former governor "has no plan to reduce the tax burden on middle-class families," and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri said Dean had supported trade bills that led to the loss of manufacturing jobs at home.
In remarks clearly aimed at Dean, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said Democrats can't defeat Bush "by being light on national security. ... We can't go back to raising taxes on the middle class. We need a president who has the temperament and the judgment to be able to convince America that we know how to make this country safe."
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut -- participating even though he is not campaigning in Iowa -- was the first to attack, ridiculing Dean for saying that the capture of Saddam Hussein had not made America safer.
"I don't know how anybody could say that we're not safer with a homicidal maniac, a brutal dictator, an enemy of the United States, a supporter of terrorism, a murderer of hundreds of thousands of his own people ... in prison instead of in power," he said.
He made his remarks shortly after Dean noted that 23 U.S. troops have been killed since Saddam's capture last month, and "for the first time American fighter jets are escorting commercial airlines" out of security concerns.
Dean said instead of spending $160 billion in Iraq, the Bush administration "should have ... followed up trying to get Osama bin Laden."
"We need a concentrated attack on al-Qaida," he said of the organization blamed for the terrorist attacks on the United States Sept. 11, 2001.
Seven of the nine Democratic hopefuls participated in the debate.
Wesley Clark skipped it in favor of campaigning in New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first primary Jan. 27, eight days after the Iowa caucuses. Al Sharpton was in South Carolina seeking votes in advance of that state's Feb. 3 primary.
Not all nine hopefuls are likely to survive that long. Together, Iowa and New Hampshire voters will likely dispatch some of the contenders to the sidelines.
That left Dean's rivals scrambling to make the cut, and explained why many of them challenged the former governor when it came time for them to pose a question.
Dean used his question to ask the other Democrats on the debate stage whether they would pledge to support the eventual nominee, then raised his hand to show he would. All others followed suit -- Gephardt, Edwards, Lieberman, Kerry, Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.
The moment echoed an earlier debate, when a moderator asked all Democratic rivals to indicate whether they thought Dean could defeat Bush. Only Dean raised his hand that time.
From the outset of his campaign, Dean has tried to position himself as an alternative to congressional Democrats, many of whom voted for legislation authorizing the Iraq war. Besides stressing his opposition to the war, Dean said he had opposed Bush's signature education bill, which cleared Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support.
"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."
None of that discouraged the other six Democrats from attacking, though.
Gephardt sought to turn the trade issue against Dean, who has lately sought to minimize his earlier enthusiasm for the two trade bills.
"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," Gephardt said.
Kerry challenged Dean on a recent statement in a newspaper interview that he would withhold judgment on the guilt of bin Laden. "What in the world were you thinking?" the Massachusetts senator asked.
Dean said he had answered the question keeping in mind that a president should not presume anyone is guilty. But, he said, "I understand Osama bin Laden has essentially claimed responsibility for these terrorist acts and as an American I want to see he gets what he deserves, which is the death penalty."
Edwards turned his fire on Dean on the subject of tax cuts. Dean has proposed repeal of all the Bush tax cuts, including those that apply to middle-class wage earners, arguing that there were none, because any reductions were offset by increases in other state or local taxes.
Lieberman also prodded Dean to open his gubernatorial records in Vermont that he placed under seal. Dean noted that the decision would be made in court, and said some of the information deserved to remain private. He cited as a hypothetical example a letter that may have been written during the state's controversy over civil union legislation from a gay individual who didn't want his sexual preference known.
Lieberman readily agreed that letters like that should remain private, but said, "that is an unsatisfactory and disappointing answer."