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Inside Politics

Rivals hit Dean for criticism of Democratic Party boss

Howard Dean laughs during a campaign stop Monday in Detroit.  He laid out his
Howard Dean laughs during a campaign stop Monday in Detroit. He laid out his "Initiative to Strengthen America's Cities" while there.

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• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
Democratic Party
Howard Dean
Terry McAuliffe

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination lashed out Monday at his criticism of party chief Terry McAuliffe for failing to exert the leadership needed to prevent a bloody primary battle.

Dean is the Democratic front-runner in recent polls nationwide and in New Hampshire, which hosts the party's first presidential primary next month. He has joked about "picking buckshot out of my rear end" in previous campaign appearances, but attacks from his fellow Democrats have begun to dominate headlines and overshadowed his recent policy speeches.

"If we had strong leadership in the Democratic Party, they would be calling those other candidates and saying, 'Hey look, somebody's going to have to win here,' " The New York Times quoted Dean as saying Sunday during a campaign swing in Iowa.

But Dean's leading rivals have accused Dean of being unable to take what he dishes out.

"That struck me as outrageous coming from Howard Dean, who launched the first negative ads of the campaign who has repeatedly and divisively attacked the Democratic Party, other Democratic candidates and the Democratic leadership," Sen. Joseph Lieberman told reporters Monday.

The Connecticut senator said Dean has responded to criticism with personal insults and invective.

"What does he do now that he's being substantively challenged? He goes complaining to the party chairman that we're being mean to him," Lieberman said. "Well, I have some news for Howard Dean: The primary campaign is a warm-up compared to what George Bush and [Bush political adviser] Karl Rove have for the nominee."

Craig Smith, Lieberman's campaign manager, said Dean's criticism "is like the mad cow calling the herd rabid."

Dean's opponents have attacked him over several statements in recent weeks, including comments published Friday in which he said he did not want to pronounce al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden guilty before a possible trial -- something he called an "old-fashioned idea." (Dean: Bin Laden guilt best determined by jury)

He later issued a statement saying that bin Laden had admitted his responsibility in the September 11 attacks, and "This is the exactly the kind of case that the death penalty is meant for."

Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who polls show running neck-and-neck with Dean in January's Iowa caucuses, said any attempt to limit the debate among the candidates "would be an insult to Democratic voters."

"Howard Dean has spent the last year criticizing me and other candidates at every opportunity," said Gephardt, who is making his second bid for the White House. "Now, as he makes a series of embarrassing gaffes that underscore the fact he is not well-equipped to challenge George Bush, he suddenly wants to change the rules of the game."

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts issued a statement saying Dean's comments lead him to wonder "if he's worried about our party's chances for victory or his own personal political future."

"It's time Howard Dean realized this campaign isn't about him, it's about our country," Kerry, of Massachusetts, said Monday. "It's time he rereads that page from the Clinton lesson book."

Kerry had criticized Dean sharply on Saturday, raising questions about what he called Dean's misstatements on a variety of subjects.

"We need more than simple answers and the slip of the tongue," Kerry said in a speech in New Hampshire. "Our world is complicated, and the challenges we face demand a president who knows what he's saying and knows where America needs to go. It raises serious doubts about both his realism and resolve."

But Dean campaign spokesman Jay Carson said the former governor's opponents "are throwing everything positive out the window."

"All they do is attack," Carson said.

Anita Dunn, the former manager of Sen. Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential bid, said earlier attacks on Dean have only rallied his supporters.

"They have certainly learned how to turn attacks into attacks on their supporters. They have learned to turn attacks to their financial benefit," Dunn said.

Dean has led the Democratic pack in fund-raising this year, and like President Bush, has decided to opt out of public financing for the primary campaign. Carson said Dean's fund-raising effort is "having a good quarter," and the results should "speak for themselves."

"Everyone who wants to make sure Washington politics stays the way it is is coming after Howard Dean, and we let our supporters know that," he said. "These are new people to the process, and they hate this kind of stuff."

However, Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for former Vice President Al Gore, said Republicans would be taking notes during the Democrats' primary battle.

Brazile's old boss has endorsed Dean, and she said she was particularly disturbed about an anti-Dean ad that used an image of bin Laden to raise questions about Dean's national security credentials.

"If I was Karl Rove, all I'd have to do is look at the other campaign's daily talking points," Brazile said. "The party is sitting on its ass, and I think that's a big mistake."

-- CNN Producer Steve Turnham contributed to this report.

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