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JOAN VENNOCHI

Dean mumbles and rambles

AL GORE'S endorsement was the highlight of Howard Dean's day. From there, it was all downhill.

Ted Koppel's kick-off question did nothing to raise Dean's comfort level. Koppel asked all nine candidates to raise their hand if they believe Dean could beat George W. Bush. Only Dean's hand went up.

Joe Lieberman proved the new adage that there is no fury like a woman or a presidential candidate spurned. He said the 2004 election was a referendum on whether Democrats could build on the centrist policies of the Clinton years. "Howard Dean, and now Al Gore, I guess, are on the wrong side of these issues," declared Lieberman.

Al Sharpton attacked Gore, noting that "www.bossism doesn't work on my computer." All Dean could do was agree with John Edwards that "the people will decide" and urge his opponents to attack him, not Gore.

For much of the rest of debate, Dean was talking fast, but not particularly clearly or straight.

Asked about comments he made about whether he believes President Bush was forewarned about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Dean mumbled something about it being "the most interesting theory."

Asked under what circumstances it is appropriate for the commander in chief to lie, he referred vaguely to "some sort of national security matters."

He rambled when asked whether he agreed with Senator Hillary Clinton's view that the United States must keep troops in Iraq for an extended period of time and finally said yes.

Curiously, Dean complained that too much time was allocated to discussing Iraq and not enough to the economy. His antiwar stance made his candidacy. Why not talk about it, unless the former Vermont governor fears the discussion will reveal gaps in knowledge and experience?

Finally, Wesley Clark is the most improved candidate on the stage. Watch out, Dr. Dean. An endorsement from a former vice president is no substitute for a former general who knows how to plan and articulate an Iraq exit strategy.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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