JOHNSTON, Iowa - Democratic front-runner Howard Dean eluded serious harm in a televised debate yesterday in Iowa, which holds the first real contest of the 2004 presidential race in two weeks.
Dean's rivals assailed him on a number of issues, including his statements that played down the importance of capturing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, his refusal to open his gubernatorial records, his proposal for rolling back the Bush tax cut and the angry rhetoric of his insurgent campaign.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, perhaps the most vehement Dean critic, described as "outrageous" the former Vermont governor's contention that most middle-class Americans have not received a real tax cut under President Bush. He also belittled Dean's statement that the country is not safer now that Hussein is a prisoner.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, whose candidacy may be starting to gain ground in Iowa, wondered "what in the world" Dean was thinking when he said he wouldn't prejudge the guilt of Osama bin Laden in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Still, the criticism was relatively mild in view of the crescendo of attacks against Dean over the past few weeks by the other Democratic candidates, who are attempting to keep him from winning the important delegate contests this month in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Dean managed to gain his rivals' implicit endorsement, should he become the nominee, by getting all six to raise their hands in affirmation that they would vigorously support the Democratic ticket.
Two candidates - retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who is not competing in Iowa, and the Rev. Al Sharpton - skipped the two-hour debate, which was sponsored by The Des Moines Register at the studios of Iowa Public Television.
Dean, whose heated rhetoric is one of the keys to his early success, said his candidacy is "really based on hope, not anger."
Dean said voters "have a right to be angry with President Bush" because he sometimes seems to care "more about the special interests that his political policies help, rather than ordinary Americans."
Dean kept his composure as barbs were slung his way, and he managed to take another swipe at the members of Congress running against him. He said they had "been co-opted by the agenda of George Bush, who came into office with 500,000 fewer votes than Al Gore," who endorsed Dean last month.
"What we need is a Democrat who's going to stand up to George Bush," Dean said.
Lieberman made repeated efforts to get the front-runner to explain why he won't sign a waiver that would make public all records from his nearly 12 years as governor. Lieberman called Dean's explanation that the matter is in the hands of the courts "an unsatisfactory and disappointing answer."
To applause from the audience, Lieberman added, "Why should you have to force a judge to force you to do what you know is right?"
Dean stood by his statement that the capture of Hussein last month had not made Americans safer.
"Since Saddam Hussein has been caught, we've lost 23 additional troops," he said. "We now have, for the first time, American fighter jets escorting commercial airliners through American airspace."
Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri - who won Iowa in 1988, the first time he ran for president, and hopes to do so this year - also drew fire from his opponents.
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the most liberal among the debaters and the only candidate to demand an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, renewed that call.
The move enabled Dean to position himself closer to the center on a key national security question. Dean, who favors a gradual handover in Iraq to the United Nations, said that if U.S. troops were pulled out "precipitously and al-Qaida gets the kind of foothold in Iraq that it did in Afghanistan, we have a major national security problem on our hands."
But asked by Kucinich whether he would rescind NAFTA if he became president, Dean declined to say he would. Dean supported the trade agreement as governor but now opposes it.
The candidates will debate twice more before the Jan. 19 caucuses - in a live forum tomorrow afternoon on National Public Radio and in a televised debate Sunday night.
Lieberman, who stopped actively campaigning in Iowa last year and thus has little to lose here as an anti-Dean aggressor, plans to return for both events.