Howard Dean unloaded Saturday on front-runner John F. Kerry, calling the Massachusetts senator a "Republican" with an "appalling" reliance on money from corporate special interests and lobbyists.
Dean, trying to position himself as the anti-Kerry candidate, told reporters here: "I'm outraged by a candidate who says that he's against the special interests, and then [I] find out he's taking more special interest money than anyone else in 15 years."
Dean, the former governor of Vermont, based his latest attack on a report in Saturday's Washington Post detailing how Kerry received more lobbyist money than any other senator over the past 15 years. "It turns out we got more than one Republican in the Democratic race," Dean said, in a swipe at Kerry and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who voted for President Bush's father in 1988.
"I think Governor Dean has, in the course of this campaign, made a number of comments that he's had to apologize to other candidates for, and I would respectfully suggest that that may be just one more of them," Kerry said to reporters during a stop in Oklahoma City.
Kerry, coming off back-to-back wins and breaking away in several key Feb. 3 primary states, said: "The only people that have contributed to my campaigns to the United States Senate are individual Americans. Now are some of those individual Americans lobbyists? Yeah, sure. They haven't gotten anything for it. Those guys have never, ever, ever gotten anything."
Behind the scenes, the Kerry campaign moved aggressively to paint Dean as the captive of special interests. Aides distributed a nine-page document titled "Dean's long history of ties to corporate lobbyists," which accused then-Gov. Dean of holding secret meetings with industry representatives, nuzzling up to Washington-based lobbyists and holding shares in Vermont utilities.
Three days before Tuesday's showdown in seven states, Kerry is trying to fend off attacks from Democrats and Republicans alike, nail down key endorsements, attract money and position himself to lock up the nomination as early as this month. With a huge press and staff entourage, Kerry is campaigning like a front-runner, often avoiding direct confrontation with his rivals and relying on key allies to aggressively lobby members of Congress and top state officials to join his team, Democrats said.
Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who many Democrats consider the biggest threat to Kerry, began his day with an enthusiastic crowd of several hundred in Albuquerque, where New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson told him, "Senator, your momentum is incredible." Richardson, slated to be permanent chairman of the Democratic National Convention in Boston this summer, is officially neutral and has found something to praise each time any of the candidates has visited his state.
Though both men disclaim any such interest, their names figure prominently in speculation for the vice presidential slot on the ticket. Edwards pointedly told the Albuquerque audience, "I am running for president, and I intend to be the nominee," then added teasingly, "There might be something bigger in this man's [Richardson's] future. And maybe sooner, rather than later."
Edwards salted his standard "two Americas" stump speech with enough local references to please the audience, noting in his denunciation of "predatory lenders" that "in New Mexico, the average family spent $1,700 on interest and penalties on credit cards" and claiming his economic program would "lift 100,000 New Mexicans out of poverty."
Picking up where former candidate Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) left off, Edwards launched a new 30-second ad on trade in South Carolina and Oklahoma.
Clark, fighting with Edwards for support in the South and Southwest, told voters in Mesilla, N.M., that Bush is the "most divisive, polarizing leader in recent American history." Clark, who began the day speaking to veterans in Arizona, where a poll published by the Arizona Republic showed him trailing Kerry by 9 percentage points, said he is the best candidate to trump Bush on foreign policy. "George W. Bush is going to run on his national security record," Clark said. "I know more about national security than George W. Bush has ever thought about, and I can hold him accountable."
Kerry hit a similar theme in Kansas City, Mo., the big prize state Tuesday with 74 delegates. Responding to criticism of his votes against the 1985 strategic defense initiative and other national security bills, Kerry said: "This president doesn't understand that the real test of patriotism and the real test of defending our country is not slapping around some silly little vote. I'll take no second seat to anybody in this country in my defense of this nation and my defense of America and defense of the American flag."
At the mention of Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who has criticized Kerry's record, the crowd of more than 1,000 booed and hissed. "It's all right, there's a great form of flattery in what they're doing," Kerry said. "They're scared; they're worried because we're going to talk about real issues in this country. They think they can attack the way they attacked Jean Carnahan and the way they attacked Max Cleland. They've got another thought coming to them." Both Carnahan (Missouri) and Cleland (Georgia) lost Senate reelection campaigns in 2002 and both have endorsed Kerry in the nominating contests.
After discounting the significance of endorsements Dean has received from Al Gore, Bill Bradley and other prominent Democrats, the Kerry camp was busy touting endorsements he received Saturday from Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm and Lt. Gov. John Cherry.
Kerry came under attack from Dean not only over special interest money, but also the war in Iraq. Before Dean was introduced to the crowd of about 300 for a 9 a.m. outdoor rally in Tucson, retired Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Hoar, the former head of U.S. Central Command and a Dean backer, said of the decision to go to war with Iraq, "Senator Kerry said he was duped by the administration. I'm here to tell you that the administration perpetrated a fraud on the American people. Senator Kerry should have known better. The insiders in the Senate went along with the president, 'cause they were afraid to do otherwise."
Dean warned voters that Democrats cannot win with Kerry. "We are not going to beat George Bush by nominating someone who is the handmaiden of special interests. We need to do better than that in the Democratic Party, and we're gonna do that today. We are not going to beat George Bush with someone who has his hands as deeply in the lobbyists' pockets as George W. Bush's. We need somebody from outside Washington to clean up Washington, and not another special interest senator."
VandeHei reported from Washington. Staff writers David S. Broder, Ceci Connolly and Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.