Old running mates fall out in Democrat race

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The Independent US

The Centrist-Liberal divide in the Democratic party widened further yesterday after Al Gore's decision to back Howard Dean, insurgent front-runner for the presidential nomination, and a stinging counter-blast from Joe Lieberman, the leading centrist in the field.

In Tuesday night's candidates debate, the normally placid Mr Lieberman - Mr Gore's running mate in the losing Democratic campaign of 2000 - laid bare the rift with a display of icy anger at the perceived betrayal by his erstwhile partner. "The campaign for the Democratic nomination is fundamentally a referendum within our party about whether we're going to build on the Clinton transformation in 1992," Mr Lieberman declared, referring to the centrist policies, which carried Bill Clinton to the White House.

On a range of issues before the party, including national security, tax policy and the role of government, "Howard Dean - and now Al Gore, I guess - are on the wrong side of each of them." As if to underline the division, Mr Lieberman and retired general Wesley Clark, another centrist who has enlisted many former Clinton/Gore campaign workers, both spoke by telephone with the former President.

When he served under Mr Clinton, Mr Gore was an avowed centrist, identified like Mr Lieberman with the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, which was the Clinton springboard to power. But he fought the 2000 campaign under a distinctly populist banner. This week's embrace of Mr Dean seals his passage to the liberal wing.

The debate itself was uneventful, still reverberating from the earthquake of the Gore endorsement earlier in the day, giving a first imprimatur by the party establishment to Mr Dean's once long-shot candidacy. In fact the Democratic establishment is anything but united. "There are a lot of people wringing their hands and talking to each other" over Mr Dean's electability, Patrick Griffin, a former senior Clinton White House adviser, told USA-Today.

The argument also reflects a deeper struggle between the Gore and Clinton camps, for control of the party. It remains to be seen whether Mr Clinton will keep to his vow of supporting only the candidate who wins the nomination. There is even talk Mr Gore nurses ambitions of a 2008 Presidential bid -- when Hillary Clinton may be among his opponents.

The rivals of the former Vermont governor are united on one point: that with the kickoff to the voting season in Iowa still over five weeks away, the race remains wide open. "We're not going to have a coronation," North Carolina Senator John Edwards said during the debate. The real question is whether an alternative candidate will emerge, backed by Democratic elders convinced Mr Dean cannot defeat President Bush.