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Dean challenges Kerry on health care

Democrats debate in South Carolina before Tuesday's primary

Kerry, Lieberman, Sharpton, Clark, Dean, Kucinich and Edwards.
Kerry, Lieberman, Sharpton, Clark, Dean, Kucinich and Edwards.

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

Saturday, February 7: Michigan and Washington caucuses

Sunday, February 8: Maine caucuses

Tuesday, February 10: Tennessee primary and Virginia primaries

When is your primary? For more key dates in the 2004 election season, see our special America Votes 2004 Election Calendar
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South Carolina

GREENVILLE, South Carolina (CNN) -- Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean attacked front-runner Sen. John Kerry as weak on health care, saying the Democratic Party needs a candidate "who is willing to get stuff done."

"If you want a president who is going to get results, I suggest that you look at somebody who did get results in my state," Dean said.

The barb came in what was an otherwise cordial debate in which the presidential contenders focused their attacks on President Bush's policies on the war on terror and Iraq.

The debate was held just days before Tuesday's key primaries and caucuses in seven states, contests that could clear up the crowded race and pare down the field of seven presidential contenders. (Full story)

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

Dean -- the one-time front-runner until he lost in Iowa and New Hampshire -- said that not one of the 11 health care bills Kerry has sponsored during his Senate tenure has passed Congress.

Dean noted that when he was governor of Vermont everybody under age 18 had health insurance and one-third of all seniors had prescription benefits.

"That's how we're going to fix Medicare, is to get somebody who has executive experience in governing, particularly in health care," said Dean, a physician. "With me, you'll get results, because I'm a governor and I've done it."

Kerry, a 20-year veteran of the Senate from Massachusetts, fired back, saying that he got several issues passed -- family medical leave, Agent Orange benefits for veterans, and a children's health insurance plan that benefited children in Dean's home state.

And he hinted that the governor's experience may not be enough in Washington.

"One of the things you need to know as president is how things work in Congress if you want to get things done," he said, pointing out that often to get a bill passed you have to attach it to another measure and let someone else take the credit.

For his part, Kerry focused most of his energies on attacking the Bush administration, even when he was asked whether he feared being viewed in South Carolina a tax-and-spend liberal.

"I think the person who has to worry about coming down to the South and campaigning is President George Bush, who's had 36 months of sustained loss of manufacturing jobs," he replied.

The war on terrorism

Kerry's most pointed criticism came when he said the Bush administration has exaggerated some aspects on the war on terrorism.

He then rattled off several administrations claims: that Iraq had unmanned aerial vehicles ready to unleash weapons of mass destruction, that al Qaeda was linked to Iraq, and that Iraq had a robust nuclear program.

"I could run a long list of clear misleading, clear exaggeration," Kerry said. "I think this administration's arrogant and ideological policy is taking America down a more dangerous path."

But Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a native of South Carolina, disputed Kerry's characterization of the war on terror.

"It's just hard for me to see how you can say there's an exaggeration when thousands of people lost their lives on September the 11th," Edwards said.

"I think the problem here is the administration is not doing the things ... that need to be done to keep this country safe, both here and abroad."

Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark -- a former NATO commander whose candidacy is hoping to get a boost in Tuesday's contests -- said the Bush White House failed to act against al Qaeda from the outset.

"The Bush administration was told the greatest threat to America is Osama bin Laden, and yet almost nine months later, when the United States was struck, there was still no plan as to what to do with Osama bin Laden."

And Dean sharply criticized Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft for pushing through the Patriot Act and for detaining citizens without access to attorneys.

"I think in some ways, unfortunately, the terrorists have already won. We have an act that allows American citizens to be held without knowing what they're charged with, without seeing a lawyer," Dean said.

"We have a right to protection of our liberties. A lot of people died for that in the Revolutionary War, and I'm not going to let the right wing of the Republican Party take those liberties away from us."

Lieberman, Kucinich, Sharpton

The other three candidates -- Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton -- refused to say whether they would bow out of the race if they don't win any of the contests Tuesday, and they all maintained they would win at least one state.

Throughout the debate, Lieberman sought to portray himself as the most electable.

"I'm the experienced moderate in this race," he said. "I have the capacity not only to unite Democrats, but to get independents and disgruntled Republicans to come together so I can actually get elected and defeat George Bush."

Edwards played up his Southern roots, saying Democrats have historically ignored the South and that he could change that.

"This is a place where I believe I can and should win," he said of the South Carolina primary. "It's enormously important for [Democrats] to be successful, electorally, and to have a president that people in the South and all across the country believe represents them."

On Iraq, Edwards said an independent investigation is needed to get to the bottom of Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction programs.

David Kay, the former U.S. weapons chief in Iraq, recently urged that an investigation, saying the intelligence community failed in its assessment.

"The American people need to get to the bottom of this," Edwards said.

Dean accused Vice President Dick Cheney of going to the CIA and berating mid-level CIA operatives "because he didn't like their intelligence reports."

"It seems to me that the vice president of the United States, therefore, influenced the very reports that the president then used to decide to go to war," he said.

Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, said Bush broke all his promises to the American people about the Iraq war and should pay for it come election time.

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

Clark said there never should have been a congressional authorization for the president "to have a blank check to take this country to war."

"We've got to change this government," Clark said. "We've got a president playing politics with national security."

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