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Democrats must unite to beat Bush, Clinton says in Iowa

INDIANOLA, IOWA — INDIANOLA, Iowa - Former President Bill Clinton, praising the Democrats seeking to claim his old job as "the best field of candidates we have put forth in decades," challenged the pessimism yesterday of those who say his party can't beat President Bush next year.

"I like this field," he told a rain-soaked crowd of Iowa Democrats who waved signs that read "Welcome Bill, We Miss You."

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"I get tired of people saying this field can't beat the incumbent president," he said.

Clinton offered himself, now in a high-income bracket, as a reluctant recipient of Bush's "tax cut for the wealthy," which he said eats into programs enacted during his years in the White House.

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He told the crowd gathered at the annual fund-raiser steak fry for Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin that it is fine to "fall in love" with one of the Democratic contenders. But after the caucuses and primaries, which begin Jan. 19 in Iowa, he said, people should "fall in line" with the eventual nominee to oust Bush from the White House.

Referring to the 2000 election, in which Bush gained the presidency by a 5-4 vote of the Supreme Court, Clinton said the election "was not a mandate for radical change, but that's what we got."

He cast the Bush administration as ideologically driven and called for a return of what he characterized as the pragmatic approach to national problems taken during his eight years in office.

Speaking without notes in a rambling, folksy fashion, the former president advised the candidates standing behind him that the way to beat Bush was to harp on how he has embraced right-wing policies in everything from the tax cuts to sharp reductions in education and environmental programs.

The wet weather and mud-soaked field did not stop thousands of Iowa Democrats from flocking to hear the former president speak. Many who make their living in farming were not unhappy with the steady drizzle because the state has seen only one day of substantial rainfall in about a month.

Before Clinton's speech, seven of the nine Democratic candidates circulated among the crowd, which was huddled under a large tent eating steaks that went for as much as $30.

In brief speeches, the Democrats continued to hammer Bush on the troubled U.S. economy and what several called the "quagmire" in Iraq, pointedly warning that his request for billions of dollars for reconstruction there would mean the neglect of pressing domestic needs.

For this day at least, the Democratic candidates desisted in aiming their barbs at front-runner Howard Dean, instead displaying determination to deny Bush a second term in office.

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The latest poll of Iowa's likely Democratic caucus-goers, released by Zogby International three days ago, had the former Vermont governor running first with 23 percent. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri had 17 percent; Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, 11 percent; Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, 6 percent; Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, 4 percent; and the rest trailed.

Notably, 32 percent of Iowans surveyed said they were undecided, reinforcing the view of Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack that there remains plenty of opportunity for the pecking order to change in the four months before the caucuses.

The poll of 500 people Monday and Tuesday has a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

Clinton's message of unity, though, threw a blanket over the candidates' increasing attacks on Dean. Out of concern for Dean's surge in Iowa and around the country, his foes are trying to undermine him with his record and his recent comments on the Middle East.

On Friday, Gephardt resurrected statements made by Dean in 1993 and 1995 on reforming Social Security and Medicare and said they warranted Dean's comparison with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

In reply, Dean accused Gephardt of practicing "the politics of the past by name-calling, guilt by association and scare tactics" and said the comparison with Gingrich was "simply beyond the pale."

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Dean did not, however, deny that he had made the statements or make a substantive response on his position on Social Security and Medicare. But his campaign manager, Joe Trippi, said at another Democratic event in Ames yesterday that Dean, as a physician who saw faults in Medicare, had been critical of the program and wanted reforms, while Gingrich wanted to scrap it.

Two other Democratic contenders, Lieberman and Kerry, also attacked Dean this weekend for his earlier statement that the United States should not "take sides" in the Middle East peace talks but should serve as an "honest broker" between Israel and the Palestinians.

When Dean referred to members of the militant group Hamas as "soldiers" in a television interview, Kerry jumped on him, saying the reference "insults the memory of every innocent man, woman and child killed by these suicidal murderers."

Dean responded that "of course Hamas is a terrorist organization," and "to suggest I might feel otherwise is shameful and should be beneath the dignity of any campaign. ... I see no room in American politics for political gamesmanship when it comes to the Middle East."

The only absentees at the steak fry were Lieberman, who for religious reasons does not campaign on the Jewish Sabbath, and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Neither of them has had a significant campaign operation in Iowa. The Lieberman camp is gearing up somewhat - though not with the level of manpower and other resources of most of the candidates who attended the Harkin event.


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