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Touting his own record, Kerry takes new tack against Bush, Dean

DES MOINES -- Casting himself as the only Democrat with the national security expertise to beat a wartime incumbent president, Senator John F. Kerry unveiled a new political message last night accusing President Bush of giving Americans "a raw deal," and implicitly deriding his front-running rival, Howard Dean, as the candidate of "anger" and "slogans."

Kerry, speaking before 8,000 Iowa Democrats likely to vote in the first caucuses on Jan. 19, did not assail Dean by name. But he cast the former Vermont governor as a protest candidate whose antiwar message did not reflect the vision of Kerry's Democratic heroes, presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Clinton.

"They offered hope and leadership and vision, and that's what we need to offer to the country next year," Kerry said last night at the annual Jefferson-Jackson party dinner. "We need to offer answers, not just anger. We need to offer solutions, not just slogans. So Iowa, don't just send them a message next January -- send them a president. We need somebody who can do the job."

Dean, who sat 20 feet away during Kerry's speech, hands folded under his chin, responded indirectly in his remarks 15 minutes later, criticizing members of Congress for not blocking Bush from declaring war in Iraq or for not stopping passage of an education law backed by Bush.

Dean cast himself as the standard-bearer of average Americans' interests, telling the audience over and over, "You have the power!"

He also denounced Bush on a host of domestic and foreign issues, at one point arguing that the president had used a "race-coded word" -- quotas -- to describe university affirmative action programs. "The president played the race card, and that alone entitled him to a one-way bus ticket back to Crawford, Texas," Dean said, referring to the site of Bush's ranch.

Kerry's speech was closely watched because his advisers had promised it would reflect a new direction for his presidential bid. Last week he fired his campaign manager and replaced him with Mary Beth Cahill, chief of staff to Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Indeed, despite Kerry's hoarse voice, last night's remarks had more of the Kennedy fire than had Kerry's typical stump speech, and Kerry's repeated use of the phrase "a real deal" evoked the energetic activism of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal economic program.

The dinner was the biggest event of the pre-caucus season in Iowa, drawing Senator Hillary Clinton as master of ceremonies, and also drawing concerns among Democratic candidates that her celebrity would upstage them. Also speaking last night were Dean, Senator John Edwards, Representative Richard A, Gephardt, Representative Dennis I. Kucinich, and former Senator Carol Moseley Braun.

On Friday night, aides for the candidates held a "sign war" festooning the dinner hall with placards for Edwards and Kerry. Kucinich's team, on a shoestring campaign budget, taped up computer printouts with a letter on each page that spelled the Ohio congressman's name.

As donors sat around cloth-draped tables, young supporters of the candidates gathered in loge sections overlooking the hall; the Dean crowd dominated, holding about 30 percent of the seats, while Kerry supporters wore red T-shirts proclaiming "The Real Deal" and made up one-fifth of the audience.

Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, argued that the Iraq war was the result of Bush's inexperience in foreign affairs and suggested that Dean, with no background in Washington or world affairs, could not credibly challenge Bush's stewardship.

"If George Bush wants to make national security the issue of this campaign, then I have three words for him that I know he'll understand: Bring it on," Kerry said.

And in a thinly veiled challenge to Dean, who received high marks from the National Rifle Association in Vermont, Kerry asked the crowd to "stand up if you have the courage to stand up to the NRA to outlaw assault weapons."

Edwards, of North Carolina, took a shot at Dean as well, echoing concerns of some Democratic leaders that Dean's message is stoked with anger at Bush. "If all we are in 2004 is a party of anger, we can't win," he said.

Gephardt, a Missourian whose White House bid hinges on a caucus victory here, continued his attack on Bush's handling of the economy, despite recent job gains and somewhat sunnier economic news. "Bush only has one idea in his head, if he has one -- tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans followed by tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans," Gephardt said.

Earlier, after playing hockey with firefighters who have endorsed him, Kerry argued that he, not Dean, offered the best hope to Democrats of beating Bush.

"Every poll shows it -- I do better than Howard Dean against George Bush," Kerry said. "It's time for us to get serious in this party -- pick somebody who can win and take back the White House, and I'm that person."

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com.

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