By Associated Press
Howard Dean bristles at references to Newt Gingrich during Wesley Clark's debate debut.
NEW YORK - Howard Dean parried persistent criticism from his rivals over Medicare and tax cuts on Thursday in a presidential campaign debate that marked retired Gen. Wesley Clark's debut as a Bush-bashing Democrat.
"We've got a man who recklessly cut taxes. We've got a man who recklessly took us into war with Iraq," said the former general, confronted with favorable comments he made about the Republican president as recently as 2001.
For the most part, Clark's rivals avoided criticizing him throughout the two-hour debate. But not so one another, and Dean, who has surged in the polls and campaign fundraising in recent months, was the preferred target.
Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri accused the former Vermont governor of being an ally of former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich during the Medicare wars of the mid 1990s. Dean, he said, agreed with "the very plan that Newt Gingrich wanted to pass, which was a $270-billion cut" in the program that provides health care to seniors.
Gephardt said he was the Democratic leader in the House at the time, leading the fight against Gingrich.
And referring to Dean's self-description as the candidate of the Democratic wing of the Democratic party, Gephardt said, "I think you're winging it."
"That is flat-out false and I'm ashamed you would compare me with Newt Gingrich," Dean said. "Nobody up here deserves to be compared to Newt Gingrich. ... We need to remember that the enemy here is George Bush, not each other."
But Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts returned to the same issue moments later, saying he wanted to come to Gephardt's defense. "I didn't hear him say he was like Newt Gingrich. I heard him say he stood with Newt Gingrich when we were struggling to hold onto Medicare," he said.
Kerry also criticized Dean for favoring a repeal of all of Bush's tax cuts to finance health care expansion and other programs. It is "absolutely wrong" to propose eliminating all cuts, said Kerry, who prefers scaling back tax cuts for the wealthy while maintaining them for lower- and middle-income Americans.
Dean, ahead of his fellow New Englander in the latest poll in advance of the New Hampshire primary, picked up that challenge quickly.
"This is exactly why the budget is so far out of balance. Washington politicians promising everything," he said. "We cannot win as Democrats" that way, he chastised Kerry.
"Tell the truth," he prodded the Massachusetts senator.
Dean said that among the candidates, only he and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, also a former governor, had ever balanced budgets. With Graham's campaign in deep financial trouble, that remark amounted to an appeal to the Floridian's supporters to give his economic credentials a look.
Kerry criticized Dean over trade policy, saying the former governor had said the United States should not trade with countries until labor and environmental standards overseas meet American standards.
"That means we would trade with no countries," he said.