WASHINGTON - Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean accused some party insiders on Sunday of desperation politics in backing Democratic presidential rival Wesley Clark, a retired general who voted Republican in the past.
Dean, who has campaigned as a Washington outsider, said members of the establishment embraced the former NATO commander after White House bids of others in their circle sputtered.
"I think that Wes Clark is, first of all, a good guy," Dean told CBS's "Face the Nation." But Dean added, "I think what you see in the Wes Clark candidacy is a somewhat of a desperation by inside-the-Beltway politicians."
"You've got a lot of establishment politicians now surrounding a general who was a Republican until 25 days ago," said Dean.
Clark declared his candidacy and party affiliation as a Democrat this month, and promptly replaced Dean atop a number of polls for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.
Clark joined Dean and eight other Democratic presidential candidates for his first debate last week as some polls showed the political newcomer even with President Bush.
Bush's job approval ratings have dropped from the 70 percent range during the Iraq war to below 50 percent, about what where they were before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Dean noted that Clark voted for Republicans Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon for president. "I think that's going to be hard to swallow for a lot of Democrats," Dean said.
Another Democratic presidential contender, U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, took aim at Dean.
Again sounding a line from the Thursday debate, Gephardt accused Dean of having echoed Republican criticism nearly a decade ago of the federal Medicare health insurance program, a critical issue to older voters.
"We need to improve (Medicare), but we sure don't need to adopt the Republican rhetoric on this that it's a horrible program. It's not. It's a great program," Gephardt told NBC's "Meet the Press."
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who is also seeking the 2004 Democratic nomination, said he would not back the Bush administration's request for $20 billion for Iraqi reconstruction until it answers questions about the postwar effort.
"Questions, like ... what are we going to do to bring our friends and allies into this process, how long is this going to go on, what is the long-term plan, what do we expect the long-term cost to be?" Edwards told "Fox News Sunday."
Americans are increasingly concerned about the soaring costs of the Iraqi operation. Besides the $20 billion for reconstruction, Bush has asked the U.S. Congress for $67 billion more for the U.S. military deployment. He received $79 billion in emergency funding mostly for the Iraqi operation in April. (Additional reporting by Douglas Palmer)
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