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Kerry jabs back at GOP

Democratic debate tonight in South Carolina

Candidates line up for South Carolina debate in Greenville.
Candidates line up for South Carolina debate in Greenville.

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UPCOMING PRIMARIES

Tuesday, February 3: Missouri, Oklahoma, Arizona, Delaware, South Carolina primaries; North Dakota and New Mexico caucuses

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South Carolina

(CNN) -- Democratic front-runner Sen. John Kerry took issue Thursday night with a top Republican who earlier in the day questioned his credentials to be president.

While debating his six rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination in Greenville, South Carolina, Kerry said President Bush broke his promise that he would "build a legitimate global coalition" and go to war only "as a last resort."

"He did not go to war as a last resort, and I think he fails the test of the commander in chief," said Kerry, a decorated Navy veteran of the Vietnam War.

"I intend to hold him accountable in this election, because the American people's pockets are being picked to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, and our troops are at greater risk than they needed to be," said the senator from Massachusetts.

"And we deserve leadership that knows how to take a nation to war if you have to."

Earlier in the day, Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, questioned Kerry's ability to lead the nation in the post-September 11 era. (Full story)

While calling Kerry's service in the military "honorable," Gillespie faulted Kerry's voting record in the Senate, where he is serving in his fourth term.

"His long record in the Senate is one of advocating policies that would weaken our national security," Gillespie said.

Kerry, along with Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, voted to support the war in Iraq. Edwards says his vote was based on intelligence information and that an independent commission should be formed to determine if that information was credible.

Dean plays down Tuesday chances

Before heading to the debate, former Vermont governor Howard Dean said his campaign's insurgent appeal won't change despite the departure of his campaign chief after losses in New Hampshire and Iowa.

But after placing third in the Iowa caucuses and second in the New Hampshire primary, Dean played down his chances in the seven states holding primaries and caucuses Tuesday.

He said his campaign is focused on the Michigan caucuses February 7, where 153 delegates are at stake.

"We're going to have to win eventually," Dean said. "But the question was do we have to win on February 3? Of course we want to. But we don't have to. What we've got to do is amass as many delegates as we can."

Dean currently leads the Democratic delegate count with 113. Kerry, the front-runner in the race with his strong victories in New Hampshire and Iowa, has 94 delegates. To win the Democratic nomination, a candidate must have at least 2,161 delegates.

States holding contests Tuesday are South Carolina, Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico and North Dakota. (CNN.com's interactive Election Calendar)

Dean shook up his campaign staff Wednesday, naming Roy Neel, a one-time aide to Al Gore, as the effort's new chief executive officer, and losing campaign manager Joe Trippi. (Full story)

The Dean campaign, which has raised more money than any other Democratic effort and opted out of public financing, may also be having financial problems. Some staffers have been asked to do without a paycheck for two weeks.

"The Dean campaign has spent about $8.5 million overall in this race, with the majority of that, over $5 million, being between Iowa and New Hampshire," said CNN consultant Evan Tracey of TNS Media Intelligence.

"Interestingly enough, he's not running any ads now in the February 3 states. But he spent a lot of money in those states, even going back to last summer.

"Essentially, he's going to walk away from that ad buy money in those states. And clearly a lot of the money he had been spending in those states was pulled out to bolster the New Hampshire effort," Tracey said.

Key endorsement

Kerry went into the debate with two strong endorsements. He picked up the endorsement of Rep. Jim Clyburn on Thursday morning. The South Carolina Democrat is a leader in the black community.

Clyburn's endorsement could be significant in Tuesday's primary, in which as many as half the Democrats casting ballots are expected to be African-American. Kerry already has the support of the state's senior U.S. senator, Ernest "Fritz" Hollings.

Former president Bill Clinton has not endorsed any of the seven Democrats. But when asked Thursday if Kerry is too liberal to be the party's standard-bearer, Clinton pointed out that Kerry stood with him to cut back budget deficits at the start of his first year in office. (Full story)

Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark started the day in Oklahoma City, where he continued to stress what he described as his outsider status. "I'm not a professional politician," he told prospective voters at a pancake breakfast in Oklahoma City.

Edwards played up his Southern roots; he has described the South Carolina primary as a must-win for his candidacy to move forward. (Full story)

"I grew up here, I've lived here my entire life," he told reporters Wednesday, describing his connection to the South. "I've represented a Southern state, North Carolina, in the U.S. Senate."

Meanwhile, Lieberman received a boost Thursday from the Arizona Republic newspaper, which endorsed him. (Full story)

CNN's Frank Buckley, Candy Crowley, Justin Dial, Phil Hirschkorn, Mike Roselli, Steve Turnham and Kelly Wallace contributed to this story.


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