WASHINGTON – Presidential hopeful Howard Dean (search) on Wednesday said front-runner John Kerry (search) was part of "the corrupt political culture in Washington" and accused supporters of his rivals of trying to derail his campaign by funding a group that ran ads criticizing him in three early voting states.
Labor unions and former Democratic Sen. Bob Torricelli (search), who now raises money for Kerry, were among big givers to Americans for Jobs, Healthcare and Progressive Values as it raised $663,000 last year and spent $626,840 of it, a finance report showed. The group ran at least three ads in December against Dean, at the time the leader in the race for the Democratic nomination.
Nearly all the group's donors were backers of Dean rival Dick Gephardt, the Missouri congressman who staked his candidacy on Iowa and was in a head-to-head battle with Dean there in December. Torricelli donated $50,000 from his Senate campaign fund to the group.
After reading reports of the donations, Dean told The Associated Press, "What we now see is that John Kerry is part of the corrupt political culture in Washington." He said that disclosures of Gephardt backers giving money to the group show that Washington insiders are trying to derail his campaign
"That's exactly what I'm asking Wisconsin voters to stand up against," Dean said while campaigning in Milwaukee for the state primary Tuesday. "I ran because Democrats wouldn't differentiate themselves from Republicans. It now turns out that they are more like Republicans than we knew."
The group spent $15,000 on an ad aired in South Carolina and New Hampshire that showed a picture of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and said Dean, former Vermont governor, didn't have the experience needed to take on terrorism.
The group aired two anti-Dean ads in Iowa, the first state to hold a delegate contest. One criticized Dean's history of endorsements by the gun industry's National Rifle Association, and the other blasted his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement and said he supported cuts to Medicare. Together, those ads cost $485,000.
"We did more with $600,000 than Howard Dean did with $41 million," said David Jones, the group's treasurer and a Democratic fund-raising consultant, referring to the Democratic record campaign fund Dean raised and largely spent last year. In all, the group spent $500,000 on ads.
It drew some big donors, including two giving $100,000 each.
They are Slim-Fast Foods tycoon S. Daniel Abraham of Florida, who also contributed $2,000 each to Dean and several other Democratic hopefuls; and Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network LLC, a New York-based sports cable channel that televises New York Yankees' baseball games. The network's chief executive, Leo Hindery, contributed $2,000 to Gephardt.
Abraham wasn't the only Dean donor giving to the group. California attorney Ken Ziffren gave $5,000 to the Jones group and $2,000 each to the campaigns of Dean, Gephardt and John Kerry. Abraham and Ziffren did not immediately respond to messages left Tuesday at their offices by The Associated Press seeking comment.
Dean spokesman Jay Carson on Tuesday called the group's anti-Dean commercials "some of the nastiest smear ads" in the Democratic race.
"The Washington establishment put this group together just to try to stop Governor Dean," Carson said.
Federal Election Commission spokesman Bob Biersack said it was "fuzzy" whether Torricelli's contribution was permissible under FEC rules. Donations to such groups are not included on an FEC list of permitted uses for campaign funds.
Torricelli and his campaign treasurer, attorney Michael Perrucci, did not immediately respond to messages left at their offices Tuesday evening seeking comment.
Other Gephardt backers donating to the group include several labor unions: The International Longshoremen's Association, Laborers International Union and International Association of Machinists, which gave $50,000 each; the International Association of Ironworkers, $25,000; and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, $5,000.
Gephardt dropped out after finishing the Iowa caucuses behind Kerry, John Edwards and Dean.
Jones declined to comment on the large number of Gephardt donors, saying only that his group didn't purchase a donor list from Gephardt's campaign.