Presidential hopeful Howard Dean (search) on Thursday defended his claim that the United States is no safer with Saddam Hussein (search) in custody, contending that the "capture of one bad man" doesn't allow President Bush or Democrats to declare victory in the war on terrorism.

Dean, whose foreign policy statement Monday garnered widespread criticism from Democratic rivals, said those in his party who supported the war "backed away from what was right."

"I think the Democratic Party has to offer a clear alternative to the American people. The capture of one bad man doesn't mean the president and Washington Democrats can declare victory in the war on terrorism," he said. "The question is what is right, not what is popular."

Real dangers ranging from stateless terrorists to North Korea's capacity to make nuclear weapons remain, he said, and must be confronted.

"The truth is, Americans are no safer from these serious threats than they were the day before Saddam Hussein was captured," he said. "We are no safer today than the day the planes struck the World Trade Center."

As Dean answered his critics and presented his domestic policy, rivals targeted the front-runner on several fronts, including tax breaks he gave as Vermont governor and his comments on former President Clinton's economic record. They are determined to weaken his standing; the latest New Hampshire poll showed Dean comfortably ahead of John Kerry (search).

Earlier this week, Dean's rivals, particularly the lawmakers who had backed the congressional resolution authorizing the war, called Saddam's capture a boon for the anti-terrorism campaign, and dismissed Dean's claim to the contrary as a sign of his lack of foreign policy experience.

Sen. Joe Lieberman said Dean had crawled into a "spider hole of denial," and Kerry said Dean showed a lack of "leadership skills or diplomatic temperament" to be president.

In his domestic policy speech, Dean renewed his call to roll back the federal tax cuts of the last few years. He also called for American business to accept stricter accountability but said he would offer greater access to capital for small businesses and "national investment in growth industries of the future like renewable energy."

Although Dean proposed that every wealthy American and corporation pays their fair share of taxes, as Vermont governor he signed into law tax breaks that allowed large corporations such as Enron to establish special insurance subsidiaries in the state.

This prompted a fresh round of criticism from his rivals.

"It's really interesting to see Howard Dean campaign against tax shelters and corporate abuse when he spent time as governor creating tax shelters for companies like Enron," Kerry said Thursday.

Dean called the criticism "Washington palaver. ... The idea that we sculpted a tax break for Enron is ridiculous."

Questions about Dean's record on aid to corporations surfaced last week as the Boston Globe reported on tax breaks Dean gave during his tenure as Vermont governor. Enron set up a special insurance subsidiary in Vermont on Dec. 12, 1994, a year after the Dean-supported tax break to the industry went into effect.

The Gephardt campaign contended that in 1997 Dean "followed the prevailing climate" by signing into law a measure that reduced the public disclosure requirements on corporations receiving tax windfalls in Vermont.

Gephardt campaign manager Steve Murphy said Dean has continued to refuse to disclose details of meetings or negotiations with Enron before the corporation located a shell corporation in Vermont in exchange for tax breaks.

"The most important corporate reform is disclosure. If Governor Dean is not committed to that, the rest of what he says is just more political talk," Murphy said.

In his speech Thursday, Dean said the "era of big government is over; I believe we must enter a new era for the Democratic Party," the first part echoing a line Clinton used in his State of the Union address.

Sen. Joe Lieberman argued that Dean's comment amounted to a criticism of Clinton's economic record.

"I want to build on the Clinton record and Howard Dean seems to want to tear it down. We're not going to lift up America or the Democratic party by tearing down Bill Clinton's extraordinary record of economic success," Lieberman said.

Dean said he intended no criticism of Clinton.