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Debate Drama: The reports are in: At the CNBC/Wall Street Journal debate in New York City on September 25, the candidate who took the most punches was the frontrunner, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, and not the newcomer, retired general Wesley Clark.

Noticeably missing from the pileup on Dean, however, was Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, who had taken the lead in baiting the former governor in two earlier debates.

Lieberman spokesman Dan Gerstein said Lieberman was less interested in scoring points than “in distinguishing himself as the most pro-growth candidate in the race” at the most recent debate.

He may also be distinguishing himself by having the best gag writers. Lieberman got off a good line at one point, saying, “In the Bush administration, the foxes are guarding the foxes and the middle-class hens are getting plucked,” adding with a twinkle, “I want to make clear I said ‘plucked.’”

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry pummeled Dean on taxes; Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt continued his assault on the Vermonter’s record vis-à-vis Medicare. The cumulative blows certainly have begun to irritate Dean. “You know, to listen to Senator Lieberman, Senator Kerry, Rep. Gephardt, I’m anti-Israel, I’m anti-trade, I’m anti-Medicare and I’m anti-Social Security,” Dean said testily at one point. “I wonder how I ended up in the Democratic Party.”

Dean’s campaign manager, Joe Trippi, bristled when asked by a reporter if Dean’s sharp response to the blasts thrown his way showed the candidate to be acting “prickly.” To the contrary, Trippi said, it was Lieberman whose debate performance came off as “uncharacteristically prickly.” The way Trippi emphasized the first syllable of “prickly” suggested he intended to impart a double entendre with the word.

Retorted Gerstein: “Joe Lieberman two times had the audience roaring with laughter and was by far the most humorous and self-deprecating. Mr. Trippi is tripping.”

Trippi, however, undoubtedly will have the last laugh. He told reporters that the mail — that is, the responses to direct-mail fundraising letters — is piling up in the campaign’s Burlington offices in “bags and bags.” So, expect Dean to show “gobs and gobs” of money in the September 30 filing, and not all of it from the Internet.

Other debate impressions:

• Best party favor: The small ceramic tortoises given out by the Gephardt camp as a joking reminder of their candidate being dubbed a “tortoise” by Time columnist Joe Klein. “Slow and steady wins the race,” quoted Gephardt spokesman Erik Smith.

• Worst candidate ties: Per the national finance chairman of another campaign, the oversized red cravat worn by Clark and the striped number sported by Florida Senator Bob Graham.

• Most hifalutin word: “Metaphysical,” dropped by the terminally overeducated Kerry in an answer to a question about oil drilling: “We only have 3% of the world’s oil reserves, Gerry. There is no physical or metaphysical way for the United States of America to drill its way out of this problem.”

• Best barb: Reverend Al Sharpton, describing the Democratic field: “Tonight we have eight career politicians, an officer and a gentleman — this is the Democratic Party.”

• Most arch observation: A comment by a former top New York City official on a remark the JFK-emulating Kerry made during a speech at the Democratic National Committee’s postdebate dinner honoring the candidates. Kerry said that “half” the dead on the Vietnam memorial wall in Washington dated from the term of President Johnson, “half” from that of President Nixon. Observed the official: “What about Kennedy’s dead?”

• Most glaring absence: The lack of any Deaniac hordes at the Young Democrats’ after-party honoring the candidates at the Sheraton New York. Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe spoke to the gathering, saying that 800 young Dems had raised $250,000 for the party. Clark supporters were the most noticeable contingent in the young, nicely dressed, racially mixed crowd. Dean’s supporters, it seems, represent a more crunchy, outsider and perhaps lefty bunch than the young New York party “regulars.”

* * *|

Judy, Judy, Judy: Judith Steinberg Dean, who so far has declined to campaign for her husband Howard, makes her first appearance on the campaign trail — in a Rosh Hashana greetings ad in the Forward. The ad, paid for by Dean for America, features a picture of the former Vermont governor with his arm around his wife, a slight woman with dark hair and a toothy smile. The ad says, “Best wishes for a happy, healthy new year at home, in Israel, and around the world.” It is signed “Governor Howard Dean, MD and Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean, MD.”

The ad, which ran in the September 26 issue, may be the first image of Steinberg the campaign has used — a search of the Dean for America Web site did not yield any photos of her — and appears to be part of a blitz to repair any damage the candidate did to himself among Jews with his recent remarks on Israel. Dean sat for an interview on September 24 with The New York Jewish Week, and the campaign has been interviewing candidates for a six-week position coordinating damage control.

* * *|

A ‘Grassroots’ Campaign?: Is Dean for America going to pot? Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana, a New Hampshire drug-policy reform group, is raising the “grade” it is giving to Howard Dean in its voter guide, based on what it describes as his recent “positive statements” about medical marijuana. The group now is awarding the former Vermont governor a “C” for policy. Previously, it gave him an “F+,” the lowest grade it gave to any of the Democratic presidential candidates. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry gets a “B” from the group. North Carolina Senator John Edwards and Florida Senator Bob Graham are now tied for the group’s lowest rating, each with a “D-.”

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