WASHINGTON – In a do-or-die battle for the Hawkeye State, Democratic presidential hopeful Dick Gephardt (search) said Tuesday that front-runner Howard Dean (search) won't have much luck beating President Bush in November because of his "ludicrous" comment that Saddam Hussein's capture had not made America safer.
"It's like a number of statements that I think Governor Dean has made that I don't think put him in the best position," Gephardt told reporters after giving a foreign policy speech at the Council of Foreign Relations (search).
Polls show Gephardt and Dean in a close race for the lead in Iowa, where Monday night's party caucuses are the first test of the nominating season. Political experts see the race as vital to keep Gephardt's candidacy alive.
Dean, a doctor-turned-politician who was Vermont's governor, fired back at his rivals, launching a new television ad Tuesday that assails their support for the Iraq war. Dean sought to convince Iowa voters that they should not put a Washington insider in the White House.
In the ad — and on the campaign trail Monday — Dean singled out Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina and Gephardt, a House representative from Missouri, by name for supporting Bush and the war.
Gephardt didn't criticize Dean or other rivals by name when he spoke to the Council of Foreign Relations. However, his foreign-policy address included a thinly veiled criticism of Dean when he contended that "railing against the system" wasn't enough to beat Bush on foreign policy.
He later described the Saddam comment as "ludicrous."
U.S. troops found the deposed Iraqi leader hiding in a spider hole near his hometown of Tikrit last month. His capture posed a political problem for Dean, whose candidacy has been fueled by his opposition to the war.
Dean argued that Saddam's capture alone won't secure America unless Bush or the next president takes a broader approach to fighting terrorism.
"The capture of Saddam is a good thing, which I hope very much will keep our soldiers in Iraq and around the world safer," Dean said. "But the capture of Saddam has not made America safer."
Later, in a question-and-answer session, he added, "Saddam is a frightful person and I'm delighted that he's gone. But there are many frightful people in the world."
Getting World Credentials
Dean and several Democratic hopefuls have sought to burnish their foreign policy credentials, offering prescriptions for U.S. policy toward the Middle East, North Korea, China and the global war on terrorism.
But Bush has overshadowed the field, declaring at a White House news conference that America's "peace and security" were heightened by the apprehension of Saddam.
Gephardt accused Bush of conducting foreign policy based on "bluster and recycled Cold War taunts."
At the same time, he said, "I'm not going to come before you ... and say what's fashionable in our politics. That I'm a Washington outsider, that I couldn't find the nation's capital on a map, that railing against the system is good enough, that I don't have decades of experience around the world."
"I'm proud of my experience," said Gephardt, first elected to Congress in 1976 and the leader of House Democrats for eight years. "I think we could use more of it, not less of it, in the White House next year. And if you don't think seasoning and experience matters, you should probably vote for someone else."
Is Inside or Outside Better?
Dean has sought to set himself apart from Washington rivals.
His new ad says, "Where did the Washington Democrats stand on the war? Dick Gephardt wrote the resolution to authorize war. John Kerry and John Edwards both voted for the war. Then Dick Gephardt voted to spend another $87 billion on Iraq."
Kerry, who held a press availability after his campaign event in Independence, Iowa, responded to Dean's new ad by saying the Vermonter is "running a campaign based on straight talk, but today we see he's gone back to negative old-style campaigning when what we should be talking about is George Bush."
Gephardt once again defended his vote in favor of the war.
"I don't apologize for that, and I'm not sorry Saddam Hussein is gone," he said. "But the burden of proof for a failed foreign policy does not rest with those who supported it on good faith and with America's security at heart."
Rather, he said, "it is the Bush administration itself that bungled the debate at the U.N., fumbled the U.N.-supervised weapons inspections, failed to build a coalition to help our soldiers, and has no apparent plan to bring safety and democracy to the Iraqi people."
Later talking to reporters, Gephardt was asked whether an international criminal court was the place to try Saddam and Al Qaeda ringleader Usama bin Laden. He said it's better to have the Iraqi government try Saddam and perhaps have bin Laden tried as a military captive in the United States.
He was also asked, after using the word "quagmire" in his speech when talking about Iraq, if he was comparing Operation Iraqi Freedom to the Vietnam War. He said the two wars were different and that the United States needs help to rebuild Iraq.
Gephardt said he hasn't talked foreign policy in Iowa because there's only a limited time to campaign there, so he talked about issues most important to Iowans — trade, farm issues and energy.
But foreign policy is taking center stage now, he said, because to be president in these troubled times, you have to be ready to "walk into the Oval Office tomorrow and do the job," and a big part of that job is foreign policy.
"When I'm president, you won't have a blind man talking to deaf people in the cabinet room," Gephardt said, referring to recent comments made by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill that, during his tenure in the administration, Bush was so disengaged during Cabinet meetings that he was like a "blind man in a roomful of deaf people."
In other campaign news, the latest American Research Group tracking poll in New Hampshire shows Dean losing two points but still leading with 34 percent of the Democratic vote. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark has gained a point to 20 percent, Kerry gained a point and now has 11 percent and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., lost a point and has 9 percent.
Kerry on the Trail
Meanwhile, Kerry told fellow veterans Tuesday that the Bush administration failed to use the lessons learned in Vietnam to avoid war in Iraq.
"We are at war again ... at war in a way that breaks faith with the need to build consent and legitimacy. We're at war in a way that clearly does not honor the notion that you must be truthful with the American people," said Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran.
Kerry said troops are overextended and put at more risk than necessary because of arrogance, "the same kind of arrogance that guided us during that time in Vietnam."
"We deserve leadership in this country that understands, number one, how we send young Americans off to fight and die," he said.
Fox News' Carl Cameron, Catherine Loper, Liza Porteus, Katie Sargent and The Associated Press contributed to this report.