WASHINGTON – Divisions between rival Democratic presidential candidates John Kerry (search) and Howard Dean (search) over the strength of the nation's military broke out in the open Monday, signaling escalating tensions between the two campaigns in the party's race for the White House.
The debate began over Dean's comments in an article posted Monday on Time.com. "We have to take a different approach" to diplomacy, the former Vermont governor was quoted as saying during a campaign stop in New Hampshire. "We won't always have the strongest military."
Kerry spokesman Chris Lehane issued a statement expressing incredulity over Dean's remarks and saying that Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, would "guarantee that America has the strongest, best trained, most well-equipped military in history."
"Howard Dean's stated belief that the United States won't always have the strongest military raises serious questions about his capacity to serve as commander in chief," Lehane said. "No serious candidate for the presidency has ever before suggested that he would compromise or tolerate an erosion of America's military supremacy."
In an interview, Kerry declined to comment further, other than to say he supports the statement. "I never want our military to be second to anybody," he said during a campaign stop in Little Rock, Ark.
Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi responded with his own written statement, calling Lehane's comments absurd. Trippi said Dean would never tolerate an erosion of American military power, but the war on terrorism cannot be won by relying solely on military power and must include diplomacy.
"Governor Dean believes that even the most sophisticated military in the world acting alone cannot eliminate all sleeper terrorist cells, nor should it be called upon to take on every dictator for the purpose of regime change," Trippi said.
Trippi said if Kerry supports Bush's approach to foreign policy "then John Kerry is running for the nomination of the wrong party, because the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war must stop here."
Lehane said the Trippi statement is a "non-answer response [that] doesn't explain the unexplainable or defend the indefensible, his statement in Time Magazine that America wouldn't always have the strongest military."
Polls from New Hampshire show Kerry and Dean in a tight race in that early primary state, which borders their home states. Kerry considered an early front-runner in the Democratic primary, had a strong lead in New Hampshire until recent weeks when Dean closed the gap while speaking out against the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Dean has singled Kerry out for criticism on the campaign trail, accusing him of having an unclear position on the Iraq war. The Massachusetts lawmaker refused to respond to Dean on that issue.
In an interview, Trippi criticized Kerry for sending "his boys out" to criticize Dean instead of answering questions about his own position.
"This is crass politics," he said. "This is an important debate about what kind of country we are going to be in the international community and there is no serious candidate running for president of the United States who doesn't believe in maintaining America's military strength in the world. John Kerry knows that, his campaign knows that."