WASHINGTON — Escalating the conflict among the Democratic presidential contenders, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean on Monday launched a television commercial in Iowa targeting Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt for his support of the war in Iraq.
The 30-second spot -- the first television ad this year in which one of the nine Democratic candidates has named a rival to highlight contrasting positions -- signals the aggressive posture Dean is taking in Iowa, where recent polls show him slightly behind Gephardt. Last week, Dean sent a mailer to Iowa voters that also focused on Gephardt's stance on the war.
Dean is widely viewed as the front-runner in the Democratic field. But a loss in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses -- the first important contest in the nomination battle -- would probably cost him momentum and give his rivals openings in other states.
The new commercial features images of Gephardt with President Bush in the Rose Garden last fall after Congress passed the resolution authorizing the president to use force against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It also notes that Dean opposed Bush's recently approved request for $87 billion mostly to secure and reconstruct Iraq, while Gephardt was among those in Congress who voted for the measure.
"October 2002. Dick Gephardt agrees to coauthor the Iraq war resolution -- giving George Bush the authority to go to war," an announcer says in the ad. "A week later, with Gephardt's support, it passes Congress.... Howard Dean has a different view."
"I opposed the war in Iraq," Dean says, as he stands on the street of a small Iowa town. "And I'm against spending another $87 billion there."
The Dean campaign is spending $250,000 to run the ad for the next week and a half.
Arthur Miller, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, said that in the almost 30 years since the Iowa caucuses became a key battleground in presidential politics, few candidates have aired television commercials that have singled out a specific opponent.
"Most of the candidates in the past have tended to be critical, but have done it indirectly," Miller said.
Dean spokesman Jay Carson said the ad simply pointed out a policy difference between Dean and Gephardt.
"This is a comparative ad about an issue that is of the utmost importance," Carson said. "The Iraq issue illustrates exactly what is wrong with Washington. You have a situation in Washington where those who should be aren't standing up for the values the American people believe in."
Dean's latest commercial comes as Gephardt has been hammering the former Vermont governor for statements he made in the mid-1990s questioning the effectiveness of Medicare and backing free trade.
Although the Gephardt campaign has not aired television ads mentioning Dean, it did run a radio ad in South Carolina criticizing Dean for his support of the North American Free Trade Agreement when Congress passed it 10 years ago.
Responding to Dean's new ad, Gephardt spokesman Erik Smith said: "He is forced into this because he has been unable to defend himself on the fact that he supported the Medicare cuts and unfair trade agreements. So he is forced to go on the attack."
Smith also argued that Dean's advertising purchase showed that the former governor's recent decision to opt out of the public financing system -- which imposes limits on how much candidates can spend in each state during the nomination race -- was aimed more at other Democrats than at Bush, as Dean claimed.
"It goes to show that backing out of the system was never about beating George Bush. It was about beating Dick Gephardt," Smith said.
The Gephardt campaign also noted that Dean said during an interview on Iowa television in October that he did not intend to make the $87-billion appropriations bill a campaign issue.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut unveiled an ad last week in New Hampshire that clearly was aimed at Dean, although it did not mention his name. Lieberman objected to references to what he termed "a divisive symbol like the Confederate flag." Dean sparked a recent furor by saying he wanted to extend the Democratic Party's appeal to Southern whites who sport Confederate flags on their pickups.
Gephardt has criticized the Bush administration's handling of the war and its aftermath, but he defends his support of the war and the reconstruction money.
"I voted the way I voted ... because I thought it was the right thing to do," he said in an interview Sunday. "We're still in a political fight in Iraq. We cannot lose it. And we can't send a message to terrorists all over the world that we're going to cut and run."
The Iraq war has emerged as a focus of the Democratic race, with Dean galvanizing supporters with his fierce denunciation of Bush's decision to invade and subsequent handling of the occupation.
A new poll by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion released Monday showed Dean leading Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry 44% to 23% in New Hampshire, in large part because of Dean's opposition to the war. No other Democrat attracted more than 7%.
New Hampshire conducts its crucial primary Jan. 27.
In the survey, 61% of likely primary voters said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who backed the war in Iraq. Among those antiwar voters, Dean held a commanding 56%-18% lead over Kerry, who voted for the resolution authorizing the military action.
Kerry has since criticized Bush for not doing enough to win allied backing of the war and has been critical of the administration's postwar policies.
Kerry also unveiled an ad in Iowa Monday in which he stresses his opposition to the administration's environmental policies.