MILWAUKEE - Howard Dean contended yesterday that Democratic front-runner John Kerry supported a "politically corrupt" secret group that aired harsh negative ads in three early primary and caucus states in an attempt to destroy the former Vermont governor's presidential candidacy.
And in another sign of an increasingly acrimonious campaign between Dean and Kerry, the former Vermont governor said he thought that another rival, John Edwards, would be a better contender in the general election against President Bush. "My fear is that Kerry actually won't be the strongest Democratic candidate," Dean told CBS News.
For his part, Edwards appealed to Wisconsin's historic independent streak and said simply that Dean was "a very wise man."
Making a brief appearance in Milwaukee before departing to Vermont, Dean skewered Kerry for TV ads aired late last year and earlier this year in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina by a group called Americans for Jobs, Healthcare & Progressive Values.
The group was backed by organizations and individuals with ties to Kerry and former contender Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat, who has since endorsed Kerry.
"I have not heard of a case where other candidates have their supporters contribute to a secret political action group to run ads ... with pictures of Osama bin Laden and so forth, unattributed ads, attacking another candidate. I have not heard of that happening before," Dean said. "I'm sorry to see Sen. Kerry introduce those techniques to the Democratic Party."
But David Jones, executive director of the group, said, "Howard Dean's words are the last gasp of a desperate, dying campaign." Jones said there was no coordination between his group and the Kerry or Gephardt campaigns in airing the ads.
Dean's comments came as the former Vermont governor took a break to attend his son's high school hockey game in Burlington, Vt. He is to return today to campaign in Oshkosh. Wisconsin's primary is scheduled for Tuesday.
The trip to Vermont came amid a tumultuous week for a Dean campaign that told supporters it expected to end its bid without a win in Wisconsin but, after raising $1.3 million, decided to continue on regardless of what happens next week. Dean is winless in 14 state contests, his second-place standing in the delegate count is close to being eclipsed by Edwards, and he is in danger of losing his relevance to the overall race.
Edwards again emphasized his positive campaign, going out of his way not to mention by name - or even by suggestion - any Democratic rivals. The closest he came to addressing Kerry and his increasingly solidified front-runner status was to begin virtually every speech throughout Wisconsin by imploring voters to demand "an election, not a coronation."
In Wisconsin, Edwards' campaign speech, which he has delivered with barely a change since Iowa, has taken on a new character, aimed squarely at the slumping manufacturing economy in Wisconsin.
Where Edwards once spoke of a 10-year-old little girl who routinely went to bed hungry, he now speaks to audiences of an anonymous blue-collar worker who has to go home and tell his children that he's lost his job because his factory is moving its operation overseas.
More than his own speech, however, it was Dean's favoring of Edwards over Kerry that was notable yesterday.
"I think what it means is that Gov. Dean has been in the race a long time," Edwards responded. "He knows what the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates are. He wants to beat Bush. He knows that to anyone who looks at the empirical evidence of this primary it's obvious that I'm attracting a group of voters - independents and people that we'll have to attract to win in the fall - which make me the stronger candidate in this race."
In his harsh criticism of Kerry, Dean was trying to reignite the insurgent fervor that propelled him to the top tier of candidates before the Iowa caucuses.
The television ads critical of Dean, which cost about half a million dollars, began airing in December in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. They attacked Dean for lacking foreign policy experience and his past positions in support of free trade and cuts in Medicare.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.