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Kerry responds to Dean, seeks one-on-one debate

WASHINGTON -- Struggling to regain his front-runner status in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator John F. Kerry yesterday challenged former Vermont governor Howard Dean to a one-on-one debate.

"I think people would love to see the differences between us, and there are many," the Massachusetts Democrat said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

A one-on-one debate would give Kerry an opportunity to separate his campaign from those of the other seven candidates as they all chase Dean, who leads the field in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Kerry, speaking from Emmetsburg, Iowa, presented the challenge as a response to comments Dean made after the candidates participated in a recent debate in New Mexico that was devoid of the sharp attacks many had expected. "I wish [Kerry] would say to my face what he says behind my back," Dean said afterward.

Kerry did not immediately call for a debate with Dean after that comment was made, but when he was reminded of Dean's remarks yesterday, he said he accepts the former governor's challenge.

"If he wants a challenge and he wants us to go face-to-face, I accept," Kerry said. "Let's get together. Let's have a debate. Let's talk about the real issues for the country and show people the differences between us."

One of the key differences at the moment is that Dean's campaign has momentum, and Kerry's does not.

With his military record and experience in the Senate, Kerry was widely expected to be the front-runner for the nomination. But Dean has surged ahead, raking in more money than his opponents and generating a buzz they could only envy. Polls have shown Dean leading Kerry in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Dean's campaign had little enthusiasm for a debate with Kerry.

"There have been and continue to be numerous forums and debates for each of the candidates to discuss the issues, debate specific records, and address concerns directly with Governor Dean," spokeswoman Courtney O'Donnell said.

Other rivals for the nomination say Kerry's move is a sign of desperation.

"It's an understandable statement on the part of a candidate who's trying to crawl his way back into the top tier," said Erik Smith, spokesman for Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. "They're looking for gimmicks to try to revive his campaign. The Kerry campaign has clearly stalled."

Another candidate, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, has been sharply critical of Dean in an attempt to position himself as the moderate alternative to the former governor.

Lieberman's campaign spokesman, Jano Cabrera, said, "We defer to Governor Dean as to whether he's going to accept this challenge."

Kerry's goal, Cabrera said, is clear. "Senator Kerry is trying to respark the rivalry that once existed between Kerry versus Dean, when Kerry was dominating Dean in New Hampshire and Iowa."

Kerry campaign spokeswoman Kelley Benander said Kerry is not desperate, but was "simply responding to Governor Dean's challenge to meet face-to-face."

Up in the polls, Dean finds himself being poked at by all sides in the nomination fight. Lieberman has criticized him for calling for the United States to be an "honest broker" in the Middle East. Gephardt has criticized Dean for supporting trade policies backed by Republicans.

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