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Inside Politics

Kerry praises Iowa caucuses, swipes at Dean

Kennedy joins fellow Massachusetts Democrat on trail

From Carol Cratty

Presidential hopeful John Kerry and Sen. Ted Kennedy arrive at a campaign rally in Dubuque, Iowa, Saturday.
Presidential hopeful John Kerry and Sen. Ted Kennedy arrive at a campaign rally in Dubuque, Iowa, Saturday.

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John F. Kerry
Howard Dean

DAVENPORT, Iowa (CNN) -- Sen. John Kerry took a shot at rival Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean on Saturday during a stop at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds.

The Massachusetts senator took every opportunity to praise the Iowa caucuses, to be held January 19.

His comments came in contrast to comments about the caucus system made by Dean, the Democratic front-runner and former Vermont governor, in 2000 during a Canadian roundtable discussion. NBC broadcast excerpts from the tapes Friday in which Dean spoke frankly about the time-consuming caucus system and called it a tool of "special interests."

"I have great respect for what the caucuses are," Kerry told the crowd of at least 500 people in a stump speech that stressed health care and national security.

"I have great respect for the caucus process for Iowans," he said later during a question-and-answer session with reporters.

The Iowa caucuses have not always been a prominent part of the election system. They became nationally significant in 1972, according to the Iowa Secretary of State's office. This year, only the Democrats are holding a caucus because the Republicans will nominate President Bush for re-election.

The caucuses have been criticized for requiring an extensive network of volunteers for each candidate.

On the day of the caucuses, party officials gather in each of Iowa's 1,997 precincts. Unlike primaries, caucuses tend to attract a small number of party loyalists. Attendees must be in their own precinct and can't vote absentee. Slightly more than 100,000 people typically attend each Iowa caucus. The state has 2.9 million people.

Those who attend a party's caucus will nominate a candidate for president and conduct other party business such as writing a platform statement.

Massachusetts' senior senator, Ted Kennedy, was on the campaign trail in Iowa Saturday to offer support for Kerry and the caucus system.

"People are looking at Iowa," Kennedy told reporters. "Iowa's going to have an extraordinary opportunity to set the direction for this country and to have an important influence on the nominating process."

Kerry said it was "honor" to campaign with Kennedy.

"There's nobody who campaigns as well and there's nobody who stands as forcefully for the priorities of our party and for the urgent priorities of our country," he said.

Kerry also praised "a lack of cynicism" he said he saw in the state.

"There's an openness and a freshness, a reality to the democratic process," he said. "In the end, there's a great independence of mind in Iowans. They're going to decide on that Monday night in those rooms and I have confidence in that process."

Kerry also took a swing at President Bush on Saturday, saying in a statement released from Des Moines that Bush, in his weekly radio address, "had the audacity to tell the nation that his tax cuts for the wealthy 'got this economy going again.'

"Iowa and New Hampshire have the chance to end the radical direction George Bush is taking our country, and choose a president who doesn't just see what's happening, but who has the vision to turn our economy around," Kerry said.

Some candidates chose not to concentrate their efforts on the state.

Former NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Wesley Clark, New York civil rights activist Al Sharpton and Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut have focused on New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first primary January 27.

Dean continues to hold the presumed lead among Democrats in national polls.

In a Newsweek poll released Saturday, Dean drew support from 24 percent of respondents who were registered Democrats or leaned toward the Democratic Party. Clark and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt follow with 12 percent each.

Kerry was favored by 11 percent of respondents, up 5 percentage points from December. Lieberman received support from 7 percent of the group.

The poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points in either direction.

The results follow a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released earlier this week that shows Dean with the most support, at 24 percentage points. Clark was in second place with 20 percent in that poll.

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