Howard Dean tried to dent John Kerry's front-runner status in a debate Thursday night, suggesting the veteran Massachusetts senator was better at talking about ideas than accomplishing them.
Hoping to regain his footing in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Dean used a nationally televised debate in South Carolina to tout himself as a former governor who produced tangible results.
He contrasted his record expanding health care coverage in Vermont with Kerry's work in Washington, saying Kerry had yet to get a health care bill he sponsored passed.
"With me you'll get results, because I'm a governor and I've done it," Dean said, noting that 102,000 children in South Carolina lack health insurance. "And with Washington, no matter what they say, it never seems to trickle down to the people in South Carolina."
The exchange, which came toward the end of a 90-minute debate, offered a reminder of how the race for the Democratic nomination has been upended. Less than a month ago, Dean was the front-runner under attack by his rivals.
Now, after finishing third in the Iowa caucuses, a distant second in New Hampshire and nearly out of money, he wants to turn the tables on Kerry.
Kerry, who today is expected to get the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, dismissed the criticism. He cited several health care measures he helped pass and explained that in Congress it is not uncommon for one lawmaker's bill to pass as part of another bill.
"One of the things you need to know as president is how things work in Congress if you want to get things done," Kerry said.
The debate among the seven Democratic contenders came five days before South Carolina and six other states weigh in on the Democratic nomination.
They are states far more diverse than Iowa and New Hampshire, and what happens Tuesday could cement Kerry's hold on the lead, significantly trim the field of Democrats or elevate potential challengers to Kerry.
"Be bold," Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman urged the audience. "Don't just be an echo of New Hampshire."
With Kerry leading the field, his rivals are looking for ways to stand apart from him. Former Gen. Wesley Clark touted his fresh face perspective.
"I'm not a career politician, I'm not a Washington insider. I'm an outsider and I'm running this race as someone who has spent his life in leadership," he said.
South Carolina is crucial to North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, whose campaign is widely predicted to be dead if he fails to win the state, despite his surprise second-place finish in Iowa. He noted how he understands the issues facing South Carolinians, especially the loss of manufacturing jobs.
"I've seen mills close. I've seen what it does to communities," said the son of a mill worker. "And all this talk among politicians in Washington about, "We're going to get you job retraining programs. We're going to make sure that we give you the transportation to get to a new job.'
"Say that to a 50- or 55-year-old man who's been supporting his family his entire life working in a mill."
Moderator Tom Brokaw began the debate by questioning Kerry about his having said Democrats can win the White House without winning the South. Kerry said he did not mean to imply that he would not campaign in the South or that he doubted he could win the South.
"People in the South care about their jobs, they care about health care, they care about safety, they care about their children," Kerry said.
"And I intend to campaign on mainstream American values."
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who many expect could have a strong showing in South Carolina, dismissed the suggestion he should drop out of the race. He said he needs to expand his reach to more voters.
"There are people that I can bring into the process that won't come in if someone like me is not in the process," Sharpton said.