Dick Gephardt accused Howard Dean of "manufactured anger and false conviction" in a hotly contested Democratic presidential campaign that turned sharply negative Wednesday.
Dean, his leads shrinking in Iowa and New Hampshire, complained about being "knocked around by all those Washington insiders." He suggested that retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark is a closet Republican unfit to face President Bush's re-election machine.
Even so, Dean pledged to support whoever wins the nomination "because anybody is better than George W. Bush."
The mixed message reflected a struggle inside each campaign to balance positive and negative messages. Five days before the caucuses, Dean and Gephardt are locked in a tie for first, followed closely by Sens. John Edwards and John Kerry.
Despite inferior organizations, the senators are gaining steam and could benefit if the leading candidates tear each other down, party officials said.
The results Monday night could reshape the field for the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary and a seven-state showdown Feb. 3.
"Gephardt better stop worrying about Dean and watch his own butt because those two other guys are nipping at it," said Dave Nagle, a former state party chairman and Iowa congressman who backs Dean.
Iowa has a reputation for rewarding candidates who stick to a positive, hopeful message but even that has its limits. Upbeat appeals work on undecided Democrats — and polls show a large number of them left in Iowa — but Gephardt and Dean seem to have determined that most of the fence-sitters will remain undecided, thus they've shifted tactics to energize their core supporters.
"The positive stuff is how you win the voters," said Fred Antczak, a University of Iowa professor specializing in campaign rhetoric and voter reaction. "The negative stuff makes sure your voters are motivated to come out."
For Dean, his focus is voters drawn by his go-it-alone opposition to the war in Iraq. For Gephardt, his appeal is to blue-collar workers frightened about trade deals and lost jobs.
"John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Howard Dean and Wesley Clark, who all supported NAFTA, are now acting like they fought against it. And John Edwards supported the China trade deal," Gephardt said in a speech to several dozen backers.
His team is worried about polls and anecdotal evidence showing Edwards making inroads on his rural and middle-class base.
Gephardt, who has staked his candidacy on an Iowa victory, sought to add to a growing problem in Dean's camp: A high disapproval rating. Democratic pollsters said as much as a third of Democratic voters here are expressing concerns about the front-runner, mainly due to the spate of accusations, missteps and questions about his gubernatorial record.
"To me, there is no room for the cynical politics of manufactured anger and false conviction. I believe in standing for something," the Missouri lawmaker said. "It's become nearly impossible to know what Howard Dean really believes."
"Howard Dean travels the country and yells and pounds the podium against NAFTA, against the secrecy of the Bush-Cheney White House, and against insider corporate deals," he said. "This is the same Howard Dean who said he strongly supported NAFTA, who won't release his records as governor, and who wanted Vermont to 'overtake Bermuda' as a tax haven for companies like Enron."
Dean spokeswoman Tricia Enright said of Gephardt: "He has flip-flopped on abortion, Social Security and the Reagan tax cuts. But we never questioned his integrity."
In Nashua, N.H., where Clark has reduced Dean's sizable lead to single digits, the front-runner asked anti-war Democrats to come home to his campaign.
"They all criticized the war but every single one of them supported it — Wes Clark, John Kerry, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt," Dean said.
Dean suggested that Clark is a Republican in Democrats' clothing.
"I truly believe he's a Republican. I do," Dean said. Playing to the crowd's laughter, the front-runner said he didn't mind that Clark voted for GOP presidents Nixon and Reagan.
"I do not think somebody ought to run in the Democratic primary and then make the general election the Republican primary between two Republicans," Dean said at a town hall.
Mo Elleithee, a spokesman for Clark in New Hampshire, said the Dean campaign was getting nervous. "Clearly, they're hearing our footsteps, and they're resorting to the tired, old politics of attacks," he said.
Clark is not competing in Iowa, instead focusing much of his energy and attention on New Hampshire's Jan. 27 primary. He was in New Hampshire on Wednesday to outline his plan for improving homeland security.