In an appeal to Iowa farmers, Howard Dean's (search) campaign on Friday criticized presidential opponent John Kerry (search) for suggesting eight years ago that the Agriculture Department should be eliminated.

"I think we can reduce the size of Washington," the Massachusetts senator said in a 1996 interview with the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. "Get rid of the Energy Department. Get rid of the Agriculture Department (search), or at least render it three-quarters the size it is today; there are more agriculture bureaucrats than there are farmers in this country. We can probably meld the Labor and Education departments because the job of both is so symbiotic today."

Dean spokeswoman Tricia Enright said the comments should alarm Iowans, who hold their Democratic presidential caucuses on Monday night. Dean and Kerry are in a tight race for a win in the state along with North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search) and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search).

"Teachers and farmers in Iowa will be disappointed to hear that Senator Kerry wanted to dismantle the Department of Agriculture and gut the Department of Education," Enright said. "That's not the kind of change that Iowans are looking for."

Gephardt said he hadn't read Kerry's comments but told The Associated Press, "If that's his policy, I don't agree with it. ... We need a president who can help individual farmers continue to farm," he said.

Gephardt wouldn't comment when asked what he thought about Dean's timing for releasing the statement.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Patty Judge came to Kerry's defense. "He showed his leadership when he called for an overhaul of the Agriculture Department," she said, "and he will show leadership as president to continue to fight for family farmers."

Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said it was "a typical angry attack we've seen from the Dean campaign this year."

"John Kerry takes a back seat to no one to protecting America's farmers," Cutter said. "In fact, he has stood side by side with Tom Harkin in the U.S. Senate to protect family farms."

Harkin, a Democratic senator who represents Iowa, has endorsed Dean, a former Vermont governor. Dean did not discuss Kerry's comments while campaigning with Harkin on Friday. However, Harkin said at a rally in Marshalltown that they had just found out one of the other candidates advocated getting rid of the Agriculture Department.

The crowd booed, but Kerry was never identified as the candidate in front of the audience.