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Rivals target front-runner Dean in first debate of the election year
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A portion of the debate format gave each contender a chance to pose a question to a rival, and many of them used their turn to press Dean. (C-Span)

Johnston, Iowa — (AP) In a feisty, first debate of the election year, Howard Dean drew fire from fellow Democrats on Sunday over trade, terror and taxes, then calmly dismissed his rivals as "co-opted by the agenda of George Bush."

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Image Howard Dean

"I opposed the Iraq war when everyone else up here was for it," said the former Vermont governor, invoking the anti-war position 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 presidential 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 Dean "has no plan to reduce the tax burden on middle-class families," and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri said the former Vermont governor had supported trade bills that led to the loss of manufacturing jobs overseas.

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Image Joe Lieberman

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut 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.

Lieberman went on the offensive 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.

Lieberman and Dean were joined by five of the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls in a debate outside Des Moines little more than two weeks before the state hosts the first contest of the election year. The Iowa caucuses will be followed eight days later by the New Hampshire primary, and the two contests combined are likely to force some of the contenders to the sidelines.

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Image Carol Moseley Braun

A portion of the debate format gave each contender a chance to pose a question to a rival, and many of them used their turn to press Dean.

The front-runner used his question to ask the other Democrats on stage to say whether they would pledge to support the eventual nominee, then raised his hand to show that he would. All others followed suit - Gephardt, Edwards, Lieberman, Sen. John 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.

Gephardt also turned his sights on Dean, who has lately sought to minimize his earlier enthusiasm for the two trade bills.

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Image John Kerry

"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 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 an example a letter that 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."

Wesley Clark, who has decided to bypass Iowa, and Al Sharpton did not participate in the debate.

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