Democratic rivals clobber Dean on foreign policy

December 17, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- It didn't take long after the capture of Saddam Hussein for Howard Dean's rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination to turn up the heat on him.

Even as the former Vermont governor was reiterating his view that the invasion of Iraq that finally brought the dictator to book was wrong, other contenders who voted for it were charging anew that Dr. Dean lacked the foreign policy experience to lead the nation.

Not surprisingly, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the most outspoken supporter of the invasion among the candidates, led the pack. Playing off Dr. Dean's observation that "the capture of Saddam has not made America safer" and the reports that the Iraqi strongman had been found cowering in a spider hole, Mr. Lieberman observed that Dr. Dean "has climbed into his own spider hole of denial."

On the day Mr. Hussein's capture was announced, the other Democratic hopefuls, including Dr. Dean, had contented themselves with welcoming the development. But Mr. Lieberman said that "if Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power, not in prison, and the world would be a much more dangerous place for the American people."

The next day, as Dr. Dean made a major foreign policy speech in Los Angeles hastily rewritten to take the capture into consideration, other Democratic challengers quickly joined Mr. Lieberman in their probing for a Dean vulnerability that might slow his sprint to the nomination.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, fighting for survival against Dr. Dean in next month's Iowa precinct caucuses, accused Dr. Dean of "repositioning" and having used the war "to constantly attack his Democratic opponents and to seek political advantage."

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said Dr. Dean's speech "gives little comfort to those who question whether Howard Dean has the background and experience to be our commander in chief."

At the same time, a new TV commercial by a new stop-Dean group was being aired in Iowa and New Hampshire, site of the first 2004 primary, showing the still-free Osama bin Laden and observing that "we live in a dangerous world [and] Americans want a president who can face the dangers ahead. ... But Howard Dean has no military or foreign policy experience [and] just cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy. It's time for Democrats to think about that -- and think about it now."

But it has been Mr. Lieberman who has injected himself as the prime stop-Dean candidate. In a speech in New Hampshire yesterday, he hammered Dr. Dean on both the foreign and domestic fronts.

"The man who didn't want to fight a war we should have fought now wants to start a war we should not be fighting ... a trade war, which will cost us millions of jobs" by "raising the walls of protectionism" against other countries, the senator said.

Mr. Lieberman made it sound as if the Democratic race is between him and Dr. Dean, which is far from what the polls in New Hampshire have been suggesting. But he said he sensed an upswing for himself since the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Prior to that event, as Dr. Dean continued successfully tapping into strong anti-war, anti-Bush sentiment among Democratic liberals and other activists, all of his rivals were thrashing about with obvious desperation at signs that the former governor was moving out of reach.

Their desperation grew with former Vice President Al Gore's surprise endorsement of Dr. Dean, perceived as a particular blow to Mr. Lieberman, Mr. Gore's choice as his 2000 running mate. He complained about Mr. Gore's failure to notify him in advance, and claims that a sympathy backlash to Mr. Gore's inconsiderate conduct has given new life to his own campaign. His subsequent assaults on Dr. Dean suggest his hope that Mr. Hussein's capture can be another lifeline to him as the strongest supporter of President Bush's war among the Democratic candidates.

It is a hope obviously shared by his colleagues in their growing efforts to cut Dr. Dean down to size before the first votes are cast next month in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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