WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean (search) is complaining that other candidates are being too rough on him and he has taken a swipe at Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe (search) for not stepping in to tone down the attacks.
But the front-runner's complaint has had the effect of increasing those attacks. Some of Dean's rivals for the Democratic nomination say the former Vermont governor has been relentlessly negative — calling his rivals "cockroaches," the Democratic leadership in Congress "prostitutes" and Democrats who support tax cuts and a strong defense "Bush lite." In return, they say Dean's latest attacks on the DNC show he is nothing more than a whiner.
"I've got some news for Howard Dean," presidential candidate Joe Lieberman (search), who ran as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 2000, said Monday. "The primary campaign is a warm-up to what George Bush and Karl Rove (search) have waiting for the Democratic nominee. If Howard Dean can't stand the heat in the Democratic kitchen, he's going to melt in a minute once the Republicans start going after him."
Like Lieberman, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) also lashed out at Dean, releasing a statement that said that Dean has run a relentlessly negative campaign but appears not to have thick enough skin to take what he gives.
"Howard Dean has spent the last year criticizing me and other candidates at every opportunity. Now, as he makes a series of embarrassing gaffes that underscore the fact he is not well-equipped to challenge George Bush, he suddenly wants to change the rules of the game," Gephardt said.
Dean, who portrays himself as an insurgent, an outsider and the anti-Washington player, has drawn support from the Democratic base angered about the war in Iraq. It worked well for Dean when he actually was the outsider, but now that he is the front-runner, the newfound clout may come in handy.
"These guys all seem to be in a circular firing squad and are not handling it very well. It's becoming a little bit of a circus," said Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus.
Dean called on McAuliffe to tell the other candidates to retreat. He even suggested that his supporters may sit out next year's election if he's not the candidate to challenge President Bush. Dean said his followers won't vote "for a conventional Washington politician."
McAuliffe, who is on vacation, was unavailable to comment. But the DNC said primaries are meant to be combative and McAuliffe won't stop the sparring until the voters have picked a nominee.
Strategists agree that the DNC has no reason to step in to defend Dean.
"This is still the primary season. There's about a month to go before we will have some clarity in the race. I think Terry McAuliffe's role in telling the other candidates to go easy on him will happen, but not until February or March," said former Al Gore adviser Elaine Kamarck.
"I think that most people — and certainly I — would agree that a good vigorous primary is good for the process, usually good for the party, whether it's a Democrat or Republican," Jacobus said.
Criticism aside, some analysts say Dean's attacks on McAuliffe may reinforce his image as the insurgent, and Dean may be using the attacks as another marketing master stroke.
"This may even help him because I think it reinforces his image as an outsider, running against the Washington establishment. You know, the liberal activists that vote in these primaries aren't going to listen to Terry McAuliffe," said Republican strategist Rick Reed.
"If the past pattern holds in this case, he will be roundly criticized for his little attack on Terry McAuliffe, which may or may not have been pre-meditated, that criticism will be posted on the Dean campaign Web site and he'll raise a lot of money off it because they just get very exercised about this. The Dean campaign is as much a self-conscious social movement as it is a fickle political campaign," said David Tell, opinion editor of the Weekly Standard.
But Dean still has to account for comments that have raised eyebrows even among diehard Democrats. For instance, he faced criticism for saying America is no safer with Saddam Hussein behind bars and for suggesting that he can't pre-judge the guilt of Usama bin Laden for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Dean's campaign added that victory in Iraq hasn't meant an end to real terror threats. They point to the heightened security and the orange or "high" terror alert level as at least partial proof. Dean also clarified his statement about bin Laden and said the terrorist admitted plotting Sept. 11 and that he deserved the death penalty.
Increasingly, Democratic rivals say Dean shoots from the hip and lacks the temperament to be commander-in-chief.
"I think Howard has a rapid retraction team. He makes very impulsive statements that are not well thought out and some of which are just downright irresponsible," Lieberman said.
"Listening to Howard Dean's comments yesterday makes me wonder if he's worried about our party's chances for victory or his own personal political future," Kerry said. "To win back the White House, we need better than Howard Dean has been offering. We need answers, not just anger."
But as long as Dean is in front of the audiences — as he was Monday touting a new plan to spend billions in tax dollars to create 1 million jobs in urban America — and Dean's opponents are criticizing the former Vermont governor in press releases rather than in TV ads in Iowa and New Hampshire, analysts say the front-runner is unlikely to lose traction with his supporters.
Fox News' Major Garrett and Sharon Kehnemui contributed to this report.