DES MOINES, IOWA — DES MOINES, Iowa - While rival candidates hammered Howard Dean's plan to repeal President Bush's tax cuts, the Democratic front-runner tried to portray himself as a unifier after gaining an enthusiastic endorsement yesterday from Bill Bradley.
Less than two weeks before Iowans cast the first presidential votes of 2004, the other Democratic contenders are intensifying their anti-Dean efforts, questioning the former Vermont governor's popular appeal and his ability to defeat Bush.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman warned, during a nationally broadcast radio debate, that Democrats must be united if they are to win back the White House. That means, he said, getting beyond the anger of Dean's insurgent candidacy and his "polarizing" statements.
Dean, whose outsider campaign is attracting increased establishment support, shot back that bringing Democrats together "is just what I'm doing." He noted his recent success in securing the backing of both of his party's rivals for the 2000 nomination.
"If I can begin to breach the gap between Bill Bradley and Al Gore," Dean said, "I think I may be the right candidate to beat George Bush."
The debate - the second of three to be held here in the days leading up to the Jan. 19 caucuses - offered perhaps the clearest indication yet of the lines of attack against Dean and the fierce competition for one of the top three places in Iowa.
Sen. John Kerry, who is chasing the presumed co-favorites in Iowa - Dean and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt - zeroed in on proposals by both men to repeal Bush's tax cut in order to finance new spending initiatives, mainly for health care.
Kerry argued that getting rid of the tax cuts would hurt middle-class families and be politically foolish as well. Besides imposing higher marginal tax rates, it would bring back the so-called "marriage penalty" that the 2002 tax law was designed to eliminate.
"Now there's a terrific message," Kerry said sardonically. "Democrats in America: 'If you get married, you ought to pay more taxes.' I think it's wrong."
Lieberman added: "I don't know of a case where a Democratic candidate for president has been elected who called for a massive increase in taxes on the middle class."
But Dean, a tight-fisted executive as Vermont governor for 11 years, dismissed the criticism as "hogwash." He contended that returning tax rates to the levels of the Clinton administration was needed to balance the federal budget and revive economic prosperity.
Unlike Gephardt, who would propose new tax breaks for the middle class after repealing the current cuts, Dean has not announced any tax-cut plan.
"You cannot promise people tax cuts, college education, health care and whatever else you want, and say, 'Oh, it'll all be fine.' That's what George Bush is doing," the former governor said.
Gephardt contends that savings in medical costs under his health care proposal would more than offset a tax increase on the average family.
Amid indications that Kerry may be gaining ground in this state, Gephardt took a shot at the senator's idea for a one-time payroll-tax holiday, calling it a "risky proposal" that would "undermine" Social Security.
Kerry said his plan would not harm Social Security and would be the only way to give tax relief to 20 million Americans who don't earn enough to owe federal income taxes.
The two-hour program, co-sponsored by National Public Radio and an Iowa radio group, was the first, and probably only, presidential forum with neither television coverage nor a live audience. It drew six of the nine Democratic candidates, who mainly recycled their previous disagreements with one another.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun also took part in the forum. Sen. John Edwards, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark and the Rev. Al Sharpton skipped it.
Dean was the last to arrive at the downtown studio, after a local appearance at which Bradley repeated the endorsement he delivered in New Hampshire earlier in the day.
Bradley, who did not win any primaries against Gore but came closest in New Hampshire, called Dean's campaign "one of the best things that's happened to American democracy in decades."
The former New Jersey senator said Dean has "the best chance to beat George Bush" because he has "tapped into the same wonderful idealism that I saw in the eyes of Americans in 2000, and he has nourished it into a powerful force."