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Dick Gephardt’s donkey canters a few steps closer to front-runner Howard Dean in MSNBC’s latest “Demo Derby” assessment of the Democratic presidential race. Gephardt gave a pugnacious, podium-pounding address to the fall meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Washington over the weekend, attacking President Bush, of course, but more importantly slamming Dean for supporting a cut in Medicare’s annual growth rate back in 1995.

Gephardt says he is the only one who can stop what he calls Republican attempts to destroy Medicare and Social Security. “They will get rid of Social Security and Medicare over my dead body!” he bellowed at the DNC meeting, his face red with emotion.

Meanwhile, Dean seemed a bit preoccupied during his DNC address Friday. He implied at one point that the DNC members, who are the core of the party’s leadership, had a moral obligation “to take this party back and make it believe it’s standing for something again.” But take the party back from whom?

Some party insiders are betting that Gephardt will drop a megaton Medicare bomb on Dean in a television attack ad campaign in Iowa in the next several weeks. Iowa’s Democratic caucus - the first event of the presidential calendar — is held Jan. 19. Nearly 40 percent of caucus attendees are 65 or older, a receptive target audience for Medicare rhetoric.

Dean does have that $15 million he raised in the third quarter of the year, far more than any of his competitors. But operatives for rival campaigns are waiting to see the Dean campaign’s report to the Federal Election Commission on Oct. 15 to see how fast Dean is spending his money.

Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark raised a remarkable $3.5 million in the first two weeks of his formal candidacy. The embryonic Clark campaign, from January to September, seems to have nurtured quite a lot of donors poised with their checkbooks once he became an official contender. Clark fired off some well-received lines at last weekend’s DNC meeting - but sometimes seemed a bit sheepish up on the stage amid all the frenzy and hoopla.

Meanwhile, among the other contenders: Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman ratcheted up his rhetoric in his DNC address to accuse Bush of lacking personal integrity, while Florida Sen. Bob Graham’s hapless campaign seemed on its last legs as he delivered a tepid speech to DNC.

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