Image: Gephardt
Democratic presidential hopeful Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri lambastes his rival Howard Dean in a speech in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Sunday.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com

As Democratic presidential hopefuls headed to Des Moines, Iowa, for a Monday debate, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt delivered a blistering attack Sunday on former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s fiscal record. With the struggle between them growing more intense by the day, the Dean-Gephardt fireworks are likely to be the highlight of Monday’s two-hour debate, which will televised live on MSNBC at 4 p.m. ET.

In a speech in Cedar Rapids on Sunday, Gephardt said Dean “still won’t admit he was wrong to advocate cutting Medicare and Social Security in 1995. In fact, he says today that we still need to ‘limit the growth of entitlement programs.’”

“What Howard Dean and nearly every Republican on Capitol Hill refuse to acknowledge is that reducing growth is a cut. If Medicare and Social Security aren’t keeping up with the cost of living, then you’re cutting the benefits,” Gephardt said.

At a press conference after the speech, a reporter pointed out to Gephardt that the major factor driving the ever-increasing cost of Medicare and Social Security in the next several decades will not be cost-of-living increases but a doubling of the over-65 population.

Gephardt replied that in 1999, President Clinton proposed to take some of the federal surplus that existed then and put it into the Social Security and Medicare systems.

“If we could have done what Clinton was proposing to do, we could have extended both of those funds by about 10 years. That’s the answer to the problem,” he said.

Gephardt accused Dean of “hiding his position on Medicare behind Republican code language.”

Gephardt also charged that as governor of Vermont in 1993, Dean had proposed cutting services for low-income people, including cutting $1.2 million in Medicaid funding. In 1996, Gephardt charged, Dean tried to cut over $26 million from Vermont’s Medicaid outlays.

“Time after time when faced with budget shortfalls, Howard Dean’s first and only instinct was to cut — cut education, cut prescription drug coverage, cut Medicaid funding, cut aid to the elderly, blind, and disabled,” he said.

Gephardt also noted that Dean “calls any comparison between him and George Bush ‘beyond the pale.’ Well, Howard Dean has gone to great lengths to link other Democrats with George Bush on the issue of Iraq.”

And in his rebuttal statement Dean did once again link Gephardt, who voted for last year’s Iraq war resolution, with President Bush on the issue.

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“When faced with the toughest decision of his career, whether to send the country to war in Iraq, Dick Gephardt took the easy way out at the expense of our country and our party.”

Dean did not respond to Gephardt’s specific charges of cutting Vermont spending for low-income and disabled people, simply saying that as governor he “made the touch choices necessary to turn a deficit into a surplus, while creating jobs (and) expanding access to quality health care.”

He also said that since Gephardt began serving in the House of Representatives in 1977, he had only “delivered empty rhetoric.”

The fierce Dean-Gephardt warfare may eclipse the other contenders at Monday’s debate. Two of them, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, will take part in the event by satellite from Washington.

Both will be in Washington to take part in a Democratic filibuster in an attempt to block a Senate vote on the Medicare prescription drug bill passed by the House.

Another contender, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman announced earlier this month he’d skip the debate in Des Moines. Lieberman is not campaigning in Iowa and is banking on winning primaries on Feb. 3.

But when the Democratic National Committee, the co-sponsor of the debate, agreed to allow Kerry and Edwards to participate by satellite, Lieberman asked to participate by satellite as well. The DNC consulted with the other campaigns, at least two of which said he should not be allowed to participate.

Here in Iowa, meanwhile, the focus of many Democrats is the Dean-vs.-Gephardt battle.

The battle to win the first-in-the-nation caucuses here appears to be developing into two struggles: a fight for first place between Gephardt and Dean, and a contest for third between Kerry and Edwards.

If Dean defeats Gephardt here, he will get his primary and caucus season off to a buoyant start, and will likely knock Gephardt out of the race.

If, however, Gephardt defeats Dean in Iowa, he will take luster off Dean’s success so far and make a stronger case for himself as the most viable alternative to Dean.

In campaign appearances over the weekend, both Gephardt and Dean tried to fire up their supporters, even as they attacked each other in a TV-commercial duel.

Gephardt’s TV ads airing in Iowa accused Dean of inconsistency for saying he would support the $87 billion to continue operations in Iraq which Congress approved last month, while running TV ads in Iowa criticizing Gephardt for voting for the $87 billion.

The Gephardt ad uses video of Dean saying in a Sept. 25 CNBC debate that he would support the $87 billion only if Congress repealed the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.

Dean campaigned Saturday at a rally in Des Moines alongside one of his powerful allies, Gerald McEntee, president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

AFSCME is Iowa’s biggest union, representing more than 30,000 workers.

Although the crowd of AFSCME activists was a somewhat disappointing 200, McEntee delivered a rousing speech calling on them to deliver Iowa to Dean on Jan. 19.

“The eyes of the country are on you. This is the state that will set the tone, lead the way,” McEntee declared.

McEntee said AFSCME was the only union that had members in all 99 counties in Iowa.

“That means you’ve got to go back after this rally … and educate our people and mobilize our people. And you make sure they’re out there on that caucus night and they’re out there for Dean,” he said.

“He had the courage and strength to stand up on an issue like Iraq before others would do it, were afraid to do it,” McEntee said.

Addressing the AFSCME members as “brothers and sisters” Dean said he would oppose any new free trade accords such as NAFTA if they did not include the right for workers in other countries to organize unions to demand better wages.

Dean said requiring foreign countries to allow workers to organize would “increase the prices a bit for us at home.” But, he asked, “wouldn’t you much rather buy an American-made product instead of a Chinese-made product at Wal-Mart?”

In the battle for third, Edwards seems to have built a reservoir of goodwill around the state. Some rank-and-file Democrats say he is the back-up candidate in case their favorite flounders.

Rob Tully, the former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party who is now the chairman of the Edwards campaign in Iowa, pointed to a Des Moines Register poll that showed that three-quarters of likely caucus participants who have a favorite candidate could change their minds before the caucuses.

The more Iowa voters see and hear Edwards in person, Tully said, the better he’ll do in the caucuses. “Every time he comes into the state, he brings new people over to him. I’ve told him he needs to live here from now right to the end” on Jan. 19.

Rob Berntsen, the caucus director for Edwards, said, “a lot of Iowans for a long time have been ‘dating’ all these guys. Everyone we talk to has got two or three candidates they’re considering. Sen. Edwards is always in the top two or three or even one for a lot of them. As we got close to the caucuses, it’s time for people to ‘marry.’ What we hear as a concern for Iowans more than any other is they want somebody who will take back the White House.”

Not only does Edwards’ rural, working class background resonate with Iowans, Berntsen argued, but they will look at the Electoral College map and realize that “he’s won in a Southern state and can win other Southern states. That is a huge factor.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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