In a feisty, first debate of the election year, Howard Dean drew fire from fellow Democrats on Sunday over trade, terror and taxes, then calmly dismissed his rivals as "co-opted by the agenda of George Bush."
"I opposed the Iraq war when everyone else up here was for it," said the former Vermont governor, invoking the anti-war position that helped fuel his 2003 transformation from asterisk in the polls to front-runner.
Dean's all-purpose rebuttal came midway through a debate 15 days before the Iowa caucuses, the first contest for national convention delegates who will select a Democratic presidential challenger to President Bush.
The narrow window for campaigning prompted Dean's pursuers to attack him from the opening moments of the Des Moines Register-sponsored debate.
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said Dean "has no plan to reduce the tax burden on middle class families," and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri said he had supported trade bills that led to the loss of manufacturing jobs overseas.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut was the first to attack, ridiculing Dean for saying that the capture of Saddam Hussein had not made America safer.
"I don't know how anybody could say that we're not safer with a homicidal maniac, a brutal dictator, an enemy of the United States, a supporter of terrorism, a murderer of hundreds of thousands of his own people ... in prison instead of in power," he said.
Lieberman went on the offensive shortly after Dean noted that 23 U.S. troops have been killed since Saddam's capture last month, and "for the first time American fighter jets (are) escorting commercial airlines" out of security concerns.
Dean said instead of spending $160 billion in Iraq, the Bush administration "should have ... followed up trying to get Osama Bin Laden."
"We need a concentrated attack on al Qaeda," he said of the organization blamed for the terrorist attacks on the United States Sept. 11, 2001.
With the crucial first contests of the primary season drawing near and Dean appearing close to securing the nomination, the candidates pounded Dean on his electability — or lack thereof, reports CBS News Reporter Tali Aronsky.
Edwards argued Dean has slim chances of winning the South. Lieberman suggested that Dean is too liberal to win a national race, and asked Dean to unseal his gubernatorial records. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., honed in on Dean's lack of foreign policy experience.
At one point, Dean — who has faulted his rivals for damaging Democrats' chances in 2004 with increasingly bitter assaults on his campaign, asked "Who of you will vigorously support the candidate who wins the Democratic nomination?"
All the candidates raised their hands. Gephardt later thanked Dean for rallying the candidates around Gephardt's upcoming nomination.