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Howard Dean maintained his momentum toward the Democratic nomination but came under heavy fire this week. MSNBC.com’s Demo Derby - our assessment of the state of play among the nine Democrats vying for their party’s nomination - shows Dean still out in front. Seeming to realize that time was running out to stop him, Dean’s adversaries intensified their criticism of the front-runner.

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Meanwhile, Dean operatives talked up retired Gen. Wesley Clark as a potential vice-presidential running mate for Dean, but Clark’s friends said the former NATO commander was likely to parachute into the race next week.

On Friday, Rep. Dick Gephardt -- running neck and neck with Dean in polls in Iowa, a must-win state for Gephardt -- unleashed an attack on Dean for supporting Medicare cost-cutting efforts in the mid-1990s. Gephardt, who's tied for second in the Demo Derby with Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, compared Dean to former House speaker Newt Gingrich, which for a Democrat is nearly as bad as comparing him to Richard Nixon.

And at a debate Tuesday night sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, Lieberman accused Dean of turning his back on Israel after Dean said “it's not our place to take sides" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Lieberman said Dean would “break a 50-year record” in which presidents and members of Congress have supported Israel.

Dean accused Lieberman of “demagoguing” the matter and later issued a statement saying he was “disappointed that Sen. Lieberman would try to create division within our party where there is none.”

But Lieberman acted as if party unity could wait -- until after Dean was knocked out of the race.

Dean also got into hot water when he claimed he was the only white politico who talks about the topic of race to white audiences

Turns out that North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry are white -- and both men have talked about race, too, before white audiences. Strom Thurmond and George Wallace probably did as well. 

Dean's statement was as false as it was inflammatory," said Kerry’s campaign manager.

The staccato exchange of fire was predictable. What wasn’t predictable was the effect on the contest of Clark, who after months of teasing hints finally seemed - seemed -- on the brink of entering.

The nation's biggest and fastest growing labor union, the Service Employees International Union, announced this week it was holding off on any presidential endorsement. Dean, Edwards and Gephardt gave well-received speeches to an SEIU conclave in Washington. Labor seemed to be biding its time, giving the contenders several more weeks to gain ground or weaken their candidacies with unforced errors.

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