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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 April, 2003, 22:12 GMT 23:12 UK
Democratic battles turn nasty

By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online, Washington

Dick Gephardt supporters
Dick Gephardt: ambitious health care plan

The battle over which Democrat will gain the right to challenge George W Bush for the White House in the 2004 presidential election has intensified as the Iraq war has ended.

Although the presidential election is 18 months away, the clock is already running for the crowded field of Democrats who want to challenge George W Bush in two years' time.

Howard Dean under attack
(His remarks) raise serious questions about his capacity to serve as commander-in-chief
John Kerry campaign manager Chris Lehane

A clear front-runner has not yet emerged among the nine contenders, who will face a series of gruelling primaries between January and June of next year which will determine who will gain the nomination.

But already the attacks have begun between rival camps over who is qualified to be president.

The candidates will face their first face-to-face debate on Saturday in South Carolina, and their performance will be closely watched by Democratic party professionals and fundraisers who will be crucial in deciding who will get the resources they need.

Charges on the war

While the success in the Iraq war has boosted the poll ratings of President Bush, it has complicated the situation for the Democrats.

John Kerry
Kerry is highlighting his war credentials

In the run-up to the war, the former governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, who took an anti-war stance, impressed many with his frank style.

But with the war over, the campaign manager of Senator John Kerry charged that some of Mr Dean's remarks "raised serious questions about his capacity to serve as commander-in-chief".

He attacked Mr Dean for saying that "we won't always have the strongest military" and therefore "have to take a different approach to diplomacy".

Mr Dean's campaign manager called the charges "absurd" and said that Mr Dean would never tolerate an erosion of American military power, but believed that the Bush administration relied too heavily on the military.

Mr Kerry, in turn, has come under attack from his more conservative rivals for suggesting during the war that there should be "regime change" in the United States as well as Iraq.

The three candidates who strongly backed US action in Iraq - Joe Lieberman, Richard Gephardt, and John Edwards - all appear to have been strengthened by the war.

Health care reform

In the first three months of the year, at least two of them - Lieberman and Gephardt - appeared to be foundering, based on the amount of money their campaigns were able to raise.

Last week Mr Gephardt attempted to raise his profile by proposing an ambitious plan to offer health care for all Americans, at a cost of $210bn per year.

Mr Gephardt said it was a "moral imperative" to help the 41 million uninsured Americans, and says he would pay for the plan by repealing all of President Bush's tax cuts.

Democrat Presidential Candidates
Joseph Lieberman - Senator for Connecticut and Al Gore's running mate in 2000 election
John Edwards - Senator for north Carolina
John Kerry - Senator for Massachusetts
Howard Dean - Outgoing governor of Vermont
Richard Gephardt - Congressman and ex-House minority leader in senate
Rev Al Sharpton -Civil rights leader and outspoken critic
Carol Moseley-Braun - First black woman elected to senate
Dennis Kucinich - Congressman and former mayor of Cleveland, Ohio
Bob Graham - Senator of Florida

Under his proposal, the government would subsidise private companies to expand health care coverage for all those in work.

His move puts pressure on the other Democrat candidates to provide more details of their own economic and spending plans.

And it is aimed at securing Mr Gephardt's base in the trade union movement, as the plan would create millions of new health care jobs.

Primary battles

The task faced by all the Democrat rivals has been complicated this year by changes to the Democratic primary system.

Key Democratic Primaries 2004
19 Jan: Iowa caucuses
27 Jan: New Hampshire
3 Feb: South Carolina
3 Feb: Arizona
7 Feb: Michigan
10 Feb: Virginia
2 March: California

A number of states, resentful that New Hampshire always holds the first primary in January, have moved up the date of their own primary election to February, seeking more influence on the election process.

As many as half a dozen states will hold contests in February, while in 2000 none did.

As a result, candidates will face a series of contests across the country early on, which will require them to acquire a bigger war-chest of funds in advance.

That will be especially important to the ultimate winner, who may face a long gap before the Democratic nominating convention on 26 July - a time that Republican strategists say they might use to begin a campaign blitz for President Bush.

Despite campaign finance reform - which is about to be tested in the courts - money will be still be central to American politics.

The successful candidate will have to appeal to the traditional Democratic constituencies - including blacks, women, and gays - while at the same time raising enough money to rival the hundreds of millions of dollars President Bush will have at his disposal.

The BBC's Ian Pannell reports from Washington
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