Democratic rivals turn their fire on 'erratic' Dean

The brawling Democratic presidential candidates are in the home straight of the primary season, with most taking aim not so much at President George Bush as at their own front runner, the former Vermont governor Howard Dean.

In an interview with The Washington Post yesterday, Richard Gephardt, a former party leader in the House of Representatives, repeated his charge that Mr Bush had been a "miserable failure" with his go-it-alone approach to foreign policy. "There's just no understanding of the complexity of this thing," he said.

But Mr Gephardt was even more scathing about Mr Dean, his main rival in the Iowa caucuses which launch the electoral season on 19 January, and where nothing less than victory will suffice. Mr Gephardt was confident he would prevail, saying Mr Dean's erratic style was starting to give potential supporters second thoughts.

"I don't think you can run for this job... if you're clarifying statements you make every day, because you shot from the hip and didn't really think through the meaning of what you have said," Mr Gephardt said.

His remarks were the latest broadside against Mr Dean from his fellow candidates, which prompted Mr Dean to appeal to Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic party chairman, to step in and impose a truce - and even warn that his supporters would desert the party if the attacks continued.

But Mr McAuliffe dismissed Mr Dean's complaints, saying all factions of the party would quickly rally round their standard bearer for November, whoever that might be. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut senator and the most centrist candidate, was more scathing, predicting that if Mr Dean won the nomination, the over-sensitive candidate would "melt" when the Republicans turned up the heat against him.

For all the vitriol thrown his way, the former Vermont governor remains a strong favourite to capture the nomination. He is narrowly ahead of Mr Gephardt in Iowa and has a commanding lead in New Hampshire, whose primary takes place on 27 January. More important still, he has more money than his rivals.

In the fourth quarter of 2003 alone, Mr Dean raised $15m (£8.5m), bringing his full-year fundraising total to an unprecedented $40m and enabling him to pour resources into later primary states.

However nasty the campaign might be now, Mr McAuliffe insists there will be no damaging long-term consequences. The compressed primary season, he argues, means that the nominee will almost certainly be known by early March - and perhaps much sooner. That will leave the Democrats the maximum time to regroup and join forces against Mr Bush.

But some Democrats fear the only person to profit from the current feuding is the President. If Mr Dean emerges as Mr Bush's opponent, Republican strategists will have a field day using the Democrats' own criticism of Mr Dean against him.

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