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WAR OF WORDS

Upset at Iowa ads, Dean questions Kerry's electability

MILWAUKEE -- Howard Dean fired a broadside at front-runner John F. Kerry yesterday, questioning the Democratic front-runner's ethics and his electability, while saying that Senator John Edwards of North Carolina would make a better presidential nominee than the senator from Massachusetts.

The comments came little more than a week after Dean vowed not to criticize rivals to rejuvenate his campaign -- a strategy Democratic leaders fear could weaken Kerry, who has won 12 out of 14 primaries and caucuses, while Dean, once the leader in the polls, has failed to post a victory.

The trigger was a report that one of Kerry's campaign fund-raisers, former senator Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, donated $50,000 to a secretive group that aired anti-Dean ads before the Iowa caucuses. The former Vermont governor ended up finishing third, behind Kerry and Edwards.

Dean told reporters he had no proof that Kerry had prior knowledge of Torricelli's involvement with the group, Americans for Jobs & Healthcare, though asserted that "the link is unassailable."

Speaking with reporters after canceling a visit to a Wisconsin job-training center, Dean said: "Senator Kerry is clearly not the best person to carry the banner of the Democrats in this race. . . . I intend to support the Democratic nominee under any circumstances. I'm just deeply disappointed that once again, we may have to settle for the lesser of two evils."

Dean denied trying to restart his candidacy at the front-runner's expense, something he pledged Feb. 1 on NBC's "Meet the Press" he would not do.

Later, during an interview with the "CBS Evening News," Dean declared: "I've actually said on the record that I thought Senator Edwards would be a stronger candidate against George W. Bush than John Kerry, because when Senator Kerry's record is examined by the public at a more leisurely time when we're not having primaries every week, he's going to turn out to be just like George W. Bush."

Kerry is spending two days in Washington before returning to the campaign trail in Wisconsin and Nevada tomorrow. He left all comment to his staff.

Aides denied that the Massachusetts senator knew about Torricelli's involvement with the group before he began working for the campaign. They also noted news stories showing that the group received contributions not only from supporters of one former candidate, Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, but backers both of Dean and a third candidate, Wesley K. Clark.

"Another day, another Dean act of divisive desperation," said Kerry spokesman David Wade. "These inaccurate and indefensible character attacks need to end."

The website "PoliticsNJ.com" first reported that Torricelli, who abandoned his reelection bid five weeks before the 2002 election amid a fund-raising controversy, donated $50,000 in November from his leftover Senate campaign account to Americans for Jobs & Healthcare. The group ran more than $500,000 in ads against Dean this winter. One ad questioned Dean's foreign policy credentials while displaying an image of terrorist Osama bin Laden.

At the time, the group was suspected of having ties to Gephardt, the Missouri Democrat who was clashing with Dean for primacy in the caucuses. The group was run by a pair of past Gephardt supporters and had a spokesman who once worked for Kerry, but it refused to release its list of contributors. The group's executive director, David Jones, released the list Tuesday.

The report showed that Americans for Jobs & Healthcare received money not only from Torricelli and some Gephardt supporters, but in two cases, from Dean's own donors. One of them, S. Daniel Abraham, former owner of the Slim-Fast Foods weight-loss company, contributed $100,000 after giving Dean $2,000 earlier in the campaign. Another donor was a financial backer of Clark, the former Army general from Arkansas who quit the race yesterday.

"We now see that Senator Kerry is not only supporting the Bush agenda on the war, supporting the Bush agenda on `No Child Left Behind,' but Senator Kerry apparently also apparently supports the kind of corrupt fund-raising, politically corrupt fund-raising mechanisms that George Bush has also employed," Dean said during his news conference.

While acknowledging he had no proof Torricelli had donated at Kerry's behest, Dean said: "The link is unassailable. The same fund-raiser who was ethically challenged and had to step aside from a Senate race because of that, raised money from the same donors to support both Senator Kerry and the political action group."

The former governor added: "It is consistent with other things we know about the methods of Senator Kerry's campaign. Some of the kinds of phone calls that were made in the Iowa and New Hampshire campaigns."

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com.

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