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Dean lashes out at rivals in Iowa

'I'm tired of being the pincushion here,' he says

Campaign activity moves into high gear a week before the Iowa caucuses. Clockwise from upper left: Dean, Gephardt, Edwards and Kerry.
Campaign activity moves into high gear a week before the Iowa caucuses. Clockwise from upper left: Dean, Gephardt, Edwards and Kerry.

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• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
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DES MOINES, Iowa (CNN) -- Howard Dean -- who appears to be holding onto a slim lead in the Iowa caucuses race -- struck out at his opponents Monday, complaining they would rather be "cozy" with the Washington establishment than "have real change."

The former Vermont governor, who has come under increasing fire from his competitors, complained that their criticisms of him as inexperienced and ill-equipped to lead the nation are "nonsense."

"Remember who stood up to George Bush first. It wasn't anybody from the ... city of Washington, D.C.," Dean told a crowd of mostly seniors at a pancake breakfast in Pella.

An African-American introduced Dean at the breakfast, held the morning after fellow candidate Al Sharpton lambasted him in Sunday night's debate for not having had an African-American or Latino in his Cabinet as governor.

Vermont is 96 percent white, and Dean said there were blacks and Latinos in other government positions, including a senior member of his staff.

The dispute is unlikely to carry much weight in Iowa, which is 90 percent white.

At a news conference later in Mount Pleasant, Dean said he wasn't prepared for Sharpton's attack.

"I'm not the least bit ashamed or defensive about my civil rights record," he said. "I was taken aback by the reverend's attack, and I should have perhaps been a little quicker on my feet."

Although polls show Dean in first place among Iowa voters, Rep.Dick Gephardt of Missouri was a close second, with Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina not far behind.

Polls also indicated a large number of voters remained undecided and could sway the voting in Iowa's caucuses January 19. ('s interactive Election Calendar)

Gephardt, Kerry and Edwards took each other on in campaign stops and interviews Monday, with much of their criticism targeting Dean.

Kerry appeared before the state capital with a group of Democratic legislators, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and first lady Christie Vilsack, who has publicly supported Kerry while her husband has not endorsed a candidate.

"I believe there is an enormous energy in this campaign," Kerry told a crowd of supporters. "Stay tuned -- over the next week you're going to see a great roller-coaster ride here in the state of Iowa.

"I'm not going to worry about the polls. If we ran this campaign by polls there wouldn't be a campaign."

In an interview with CNN, Kerry pointed out that 27 Iowa legislators have endorsed him, more than "Gephardt and Dean put together. That's a statement about the leadership that they're looking for and the ability to beat George Bush, which is critical."

Edwards, who was endorsed Sunday by the Des Moines Register, the state's largest newspaper, said his campaign is seeing a "dramatic upsurge" in Iowa. (Full story)

"We go to these events now, instead of being 50 people, which is what we expect, there are 200, 300, 400, 500 in some cases," he told CNN.

"I had events yesterday where people came to me afterwards and said, 'I was for Governor Dean; now I'm for you. I've decided to support you.'"

Gephardt, speaking to CNN aboard his campaign bus, touted his plans to guarantee health care for everyone. "My plan, unlike Howard's, really helps people and average families more," he said.

Dean has promised to cut payroll taxes, which he says will bring critical relief to middle class families. But the former Vermont governor said he's tired of being the target of his fellow presidential hopefuls.

"I'm going after everybody because I'm tired of being the pincushion here, and so you do that to me long enough, eventually I'm going to respond and I am now," he said.

Dean has the backing of Sen. Tom Harkin, one of the most popular and influential Democrats in the state, and both Edwards and Kerry have picked up endorsements from Iowa newspapers. But Gephardt said in Iowa, endorsements "don't have much impact on the final results."

"Endorsements are great and you want all of them," he said. "What you really want is the endorsement of the Iowa caucus-goer, and that's what gets decided next Monday night. ... Iowa caucus-goers really focus in on the issues -- they really try to evaluate what you're talking about."

He added, "These people are fiercely independent."

Although the four candidates are focused on Iowa, they are also keeping their eyes on New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first primary January 27.

Former NATO chief Wesley Clark, placing second in polls nationwide, is not campaigning in Iowa and is focusing on New Hampshire, as is Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

Dean, who according to polls holds a strong lead in New Hampshire, plans to visit the state Wednesday before returning to Iowa that evening.

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