Howard Dean (search) looked to gain an edge over Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry (search) on Saturday by labeling the Massachusetts senator the "hand maiden of special interests."

Dean, a one-time front-runner, has been stepping up his criticism of Kerry ever since the senator won the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. With his original plan to campaign as the front-runner spoiled by the losses, Dean is trying to position himself as Kerry's chief rival, according to a strategy outlined by his campaign chief.

"Our goal for the next two and a half weeks is simple — become the last-standing alternative to John Kerry after the Wisconsin primary on February 17," Roy Neel wrote in a memo Friday night.

In a speech at the outdoor Georges Demester Performance Center, Dean cited a study by the Center for Responsive Politics (search), a nonpartisan political research group in Washington, which said Kerry raised nearly $640,000 from lobbyists over the past 15 years, more than any other senator.

"We are not going to beat George Bush with somebody who has his hands as deeply in the lobbyists' pockets as George W. Bush's," Dean said. "We need somebody from outside Washington to clean up Washington and not another special interest senator."

Kerry shot back quickly.

In an interview with a local television station, he said, "I've never taken from groups. The only people who have contributed to my campaign are individual Americans. Now are some of those individual Americans lobbyists? Yeah, sure. I am the only person in the United States Senate who has been elected four times who has voluntarily refused to take any checks from political action committees."

Dean is drawing heavy financial support from two large labor unions. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees' political action committee has spent more than $1.7 million on polling, ads and get-out-the-vote efforts. A Service Employees International Union PAC has spent close to $1 million.

Dean said he doesn't consider unions a special interest, and many of Kerry's donations are from business lobbyists.

"It turns out we've got more than one Republican in the Democratic race," Dean told reporters on his campaign bus. "I've already said I thought Wes Clark (search) was a Republican and now apparently John Kerry has the same financing habits."

Kerry replied that the charge he's a Republican is another Dean misstep.

"Governor Dean has in the course of this campaign made a number of comments that he's had to apologize to other candidates for and I would respectfully suggest that that may be one more," Kerry told reporters in Michigan.

Arizona voters select their favorite Democratic candidate on Tuesday along with voters in South Carolina, Missouri, Delaware, New Mexico, North Dakota and Oklahoma. Dean has said he doesn't need to win any of them, but just get enough votes to win delegates and stay in the race.

Dean's not advertising in any of those states, but using his scarce resources for the Feb. 7 caucuses in Michigan and Washington state and the Wisconsin primary 10 days later.

More than 1,400 people came to see Dean in Seattle on Saturday, lining up around a city block to get into his town hall meeting on health care. They raucously applauded his argument that Kerry is the "lesser of two evils" when compared to President Bush.

"All I have to say is after that you guys better go out and win the February 7 caucuses," Dean said in response to the extended standing ovation. "Because you can be as enthusiastic as you want in here and whoop and holler, but if we don't translate this into votes, we're not going to make it."