Rick Wilking  /  Reuters
Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, left, listens to Howard Dean during a debate among the Democratic presidential contenders in Johnston, Iowa, on Sunday.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 1/4/2004 11:39:52 PM ET 2004-01-05T04:39:52

The most remarkable aspect of the Democratic presidential contenders’ debate in Johnston, Iowa, on Sunday was how much rhetorical kindling Howard Dean’s rivals piled up, and how doggedly he kept himself from reaching the combustion point.

Even on the potentially damaging of issue of why Dean had sealed many of his records as Vermont governor and why he has refused to open them, Dean displayed an almost fire-proof persona.

Indeed, the race for the nomination may be coming down to a race against time between the primary schedule and Dean’s combustion point.

Theatrical confrontation
The debate’s most theatrical confrontation came when Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, brandishing what appeared to be a blue felt-tipped pen, offered to give it to Dean so he could sign a waiver allowing all his gubernatorial records to be made public.

It was a bit reminiscent of a televised debate in 2000 when Republican Senate candidate Rick Lazio offered Hillary Clinton a pen to sign a pledge to forego the use of so-called soft money in her campaign. She declined.

“I have in my hand a memorandum of understanding between you and the (Vermont) secretary of state which makes it very clear that all it takes to open up your records as governor is one stroke of a pen,” Lieberman said.

Ignoring Lieberman's pen, Dean said more than half of his records were already open and that the decision on the rest of them was in the hands of Vermont’s attorney general and a judge. “They are free to release whatever they want and that is fine with me,” he said.

“Why should you have to force a judge to force you to do what you know is right?” Lieberman asked, but Dean insisted a judge was the best person to decide the issue.

Lieberman also pressed Dean hard on his proposed repeal of both the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.

Dean doggedly repeated the claim he makes in his campaign stump speech: “There was no middle class tax cut.”

Lieberman called that statement “outrageous,” adding, “I don't know which is worse, that he wants to repeal the tax cuts, or that he won't admit that they ever existed.”

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Lieberman argued that as president he would “protect the middle-class tax cuts” that “a lot of us Democrats fought for in Congress over the last three years.” The unspoken irony was that Lieberman voted against final passage of both the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.

In a cryptic statement that debate moderator Des Moines Register Editor Paul Anger did not allow Dean’s rivals to pursue, Dean promised that “ultimately, we will have a program for tax fairness.”

Due to Anger’s intervention, Deans’ opponents never got the chance to ask him to define what he meant by “ultimately” or to explain his “program for tax fairness.”

Displaying his characteristic bravado, Dean pledged to balance the federal budget -- “and I'm going to do it in the sixth or seventh year of my administration.”

Will Dean's supporters stay home?
Last week, Dean made news by warning that if the party decided to nominate someone other than him, his supporters might just stay home this November.

“If I don't win the nomination, where do you think those million and a half people, half a million on the Internet, where do you think they're going to go?" Dean asked last Sunday. "They're certainly not going to vote for a conventional Washington politician" — a label that might apply to Lieberman or Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, who is running neck and neck with Dean in Iowa polls.

In Sunday’s debate, Dean struck a markedly different note. “I have repeatedly said that I will vigorously support the nominee of the Democratic party and I will vigorously encourage all my supporters to do the same.” Dean asked the other candidates on the stage if they too would pledge to vigorously support the party’s nominee. 

All dutifully raised their hands — none was quick-witted enough to remind Dean of his veiled threat of just a week ago.

Saudi tip-off?
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry joined the criticism of Dean, alluding to a remark Dean made on National Public Radio last month about President Bush in which Dean said, “The most interesting theory that I have heard so far” about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States “is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis.”

Dean told NPR that this was “nothing more than a theory” and “it can't be proved,” but Kerry paraphrased it as “you said that the president of the United States had prior warning about Sept. 11. You get it off the Internet; you passed it on on national television.”

Such comments, Kerry charged, “raises a serious question about your ability to be able to stand up to George Bush and make Americans feel safe and secure.”

This was the one point in the debate where Dean seemed on the verge of deep anger. In response to Kerry, Dean made the general observation that “a ‘gaffe’ in Washington is when you tell the truth and the Washington establishment thinks you shouldn’t have.”

Then he added with a chill in his voice, “Senator, you better go back and look at the quote because you are doing exactly what so many of you all have done over the past year with my record. You better go look what I said about Saudi Arabia tipping off the president. I said I didn’t believe it and I said it right on that show.”

Again moderator Anger hustled the debate along — and Kerry allowed him to do so, thus letting slip his chance to grab control of the event by asking Dean the logical follow-up: Why in the first place had Dean ever floated the "interesting theory" that Saudis tipped off Bush about Sept. 11? What role will that "interesting theory" play in Dean's campaign if he is the Democratic nominee?

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