updated 1/13/2004 1:04:41 PM ET 2004-01-13T18:04:41

Democratic presidential hopeful Dick Gephardt said Tuesday that Howard Dean was a less viable candidate to defeat President Bush because of his “ludicrous” comment that Saddam Hussein’s capture had not made America safer.

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“It’s like a number of statements that I think Governor Dean has made that I don’t think put him in the best position,” Gephardt told reporters.

Gephardt did not criticize Dean or other rivals by name when he spoke earlier Tuesday to the Council on Foreign Relations. However, his foreign-policy address included a thinly veiled criticism of Dean when he contended that “railing against the system” wasn’t enough when it comes time to pick a challenger to Bush on foreign policy.

He later described the Saddam comment as “ludicrous.”

Gephardt accused Bush of conducting foreign policy based on “bluster and recycled Cold War taunts.”

At the same time, he said, “I’m not going to come before you ... and say what’s fashionable in our politics. That I’m a Washington outsider, that I couldn’t find the nation’s capital on a map, that railing against the system is good enough, that I don’t have decades of experience around the world.”

'Proud of my experience'
“I’m proud of my experience,” said Gephardt, first elected to Congress in 1976 and the leader of House Democrats for eight years. “I think we could use more of it, not less of it, in the White House next year. And if you don’t think seasoning and experience matters, you should probably vote for someone else.”

Dean, the former governor of Vermont, has sought to set himself apart from rivals who have served in Congress. He used a new ad airing in Iowa to step up his criticism of them, arguing that they failed to stand up to Bush in the run-up to the war against Iraq.

The Dean ad says, “Where did the Washington Democrats stand on the war? Dick Gephardt wrote the resolution to authorize war. John Kerry and John Edwards both voted for the war. Then Dick Gephardt voted to spend another $87 billion on Iraq.”

As he has many times in the campaign, Gephardt defended his vote in favor of the war. “I don’t apologize for that, and I’m not sorry Saddam Hussein is gone,” he said. “But the burden of proof for a failed foreign policy does not rest with those who supported it on good faith and with America’s security at heart.”

Rather, he said, “it is the Bush administration itself that bungled the debate at the U.N., fumbled the U.N.-supervised weapons inspections, failed to build a coalition to help our soldiers, and has no apparent plan to bring safety and democracy to the Iraqi people.

“So we can agree or disagree about the war in Iraq,” he said.

Deadlocked in Iowa
Judging from the polls, Gephardt and Dean are in a close race for the lead in Iowa, where party caucuses Monday night are the first test of the nominating season.

The Missouri congressman has predicted he will win the caucuses, and aides say he must. Dean is hoping for a victory to validate his remarkable rise from asterisk in the polls to campaign front-runner during 2003.

In his speech, Gephardt sharply attacked Bush’s foreign policy and said he would take steps to “break the cycle of poverty and ignorance” that lead to terrorism.

“My problem with the Bush foreign policy team and the cold warriors they’ve brought out of semiretirement to run it, is their overwhelming arrogance and lack of appreciation for the subtleties of democracy-building or alliance-strengthening,” he said.

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