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Gephardt, Kerry take shots at Dean policies on health care in Democratic debate
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Eight Democratic contenders for the White House debated in Des Moines. Two, Sen. John Kerry and Sen. John Edwards participated by videoconference. (MPR Photo/MSNBC)

Des Moines, Iowa — (AP) Rep. Dick Gephardt and Democratic rival Howard Dean intensified their war of words on Monday, attacking each others' records in the latest in a series of Democratic debates.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts quickly joined the fray, joining Gephardt in assailing Dean's intentions concerning health care issues.

Gephardt accused the former Vermont governor of resorting to cuts in services for the poor and disabled to try to balance his state's budget.

"He cut funding for the blind and disabled," Gephardt said. He said that Dean cut services for the "most vulnerable" of Vermonters.

Dean, who polls show is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, snapped back that he believed "Gephardt is a good guy but his research folks need a little help."

He denied Gephardt's charge that he had cut the state's Medicaid program.

Kerry, who along with Sen. John Edwards participated via a television satellite link sponsored by cable channel MSNBC, also sought to engage Dean directly.

He asked him repeatedly whether, if elected, he would act to "slow the rate of growth of Medicare."

"I'd like to slow the pace of this debate," a visibly aggravated Dean responded. After repeatedly dodging the question, he declared, "We will not cut Medicare in order to balance the budget."

The sharp exchanges came after the debate began with rare agreement of the eight presidential hopefuls participating in the forum: opposition to the GOP-crafted $400 billion Medicare prescription drug bill moving through Congress.

Kerry and Edwards could not make the debate in person because the Senate was in series of votes on the Medicare bill.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut did not participate in a state that he has decided to bypass.

Gephardt said that, as governor, Dean "cut Medicaid. He cut the prescription drug program. He tried to eliminate it three times in the mid-90s..."

Asked by moderator Tom Brokaw whether he felt his criticism of Dean had gone too far, Gephardt responded: "I think campaigns are about bringing out differences."

"We have a difference on how to get budgets strengthened out," Gephardt said.

During his nearly 12 years as Vermont governor, Dean went to battle over whether individual benefits should be restrained by tying increases to the cost of living. Liberals in the state were particularly incensed when he tried that tactic on a program serving the blind, disabled and elderly, which he did several times.

On an issue certain to be front and center in the 2004 election, Kerry was asked about last week's 4-3 ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that a law prohibiting gay marriages was unconstitutional. The court told the state legislature to modify the law.

"I would urge the Legislature to do precisely what the Constitution requires. It is a matter of equal protection under the law," Kerry said.

He said the state's highest court "drew a distinction" between church-sanctioned marriages and the rights that a state offers couples.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas, weighing in on the topic, said, "I think we need to move forward with this issue. I think people who want same-sex marriages really should have the same rights as people in conventional marriages."

Gephardt and Dean also sparred in the two-hour debate over the Iraq war, with Dean renewing his criticism of Gephardt for supporting the war resolution in late 2002.

"Howard, I think you're all over the lot on this one," Gephardt shot back, suggesting that Dean had earlier voiced support for both the war resolution and the $87 billion aid package for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gephardt and Kerry both defended voting to authorize the Iraq war - but accused President Bush of misusing the authority.

Dean called it a complete "failure on the part of Congress."

Kerry sidestepped a question on whether he believed Dean was incapable of serving as commander in chief.

"I've never suggested he's incapable," Kerry said, saying instead he had stressed his own military experience.

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