Gephardt said at a rally in Michigan, ahead of Saturday’s caucuses, ”These are serious times that demand a leader who can go toe-to-toe with George Bush on national security issues, who will defeat George Bush in November and who is ready to meet the awesome challenges of the presidency. That leader is John Kerry.”
Kerry won Tuesday’s primary in Gephardt’s home state of Missouri by a sizable margin, garnering 51 percent of the vote and 36 delegates out of a total 74. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., came in second at 25 percent, receiving 20 delegates.
Gephardt had earlier dropped out of the race, after a distant fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses Jan. 19.
Kerry’s campaign has been picking up speed since his wins in Iowa, New Hampshire and in five of the seven states in Tuesday’s primaries and caucuses.
The Massachusetts senator hopes Gephardt’s endorsement curbs criticism of his trade and fuel-economy policies, neither of which is popular in the industrial Midwest, according to the Associated Press.
An alliance of labor groups formed by the Teamsters and more than a dozen industrial unions to support Gephardt were expected to endorse Kerry after union presidents briefed their members over the next week.
Meanwhile, Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley Clark exchanged charges as they stumped ahead of the Feb. 10 primaries in Virginia and Tennessee.
Clark, who has become more vocal about criticizing his competition in recent days, said Edwards was hypocritical for criticizing proposals he voted for in the Senate, including education reform, the Patriot Act and the Iraq war, according to the Associated Press.
He also accused Edwards of voting “against programs to help our nation’s veterans” and called for increased health and retirement funding for former members of the armed services in a radio interview in Tennessee.
Edwards’ spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri replied, “Unfortunately, this is what politicians do when they are losing — they dip into the gutter and throw whatever they find, whether it is true or not.”
The Edwards campaign also said the North Carolina senator has supported veterans and voted to increase spending on veterans’ programs.
Clark, who won his first primary in Oklahoma on Tuesday, touted his experience as a four-star general, saying it puts him in a better position than President Bush to be commander in chief.
“I think I’m the best prepared to be commander in chief and to start getting our troops out of Iraq and bringing them home,” Clark said. “I’ve forgotten more about national security than George W. Bush ever learned.”
Edwards, who also won his first primary Tuesday — in South Carolina — also took a shot at President Bush on Friday, saying his economic policies have sent jobs overseas and created deficits that are preventing the creation of significant numbers of new jobs.
“This president’s economic policies are not working. The one thing we haven’t tried should happen in November: changing these policies by firing George Bush,” Edwards said.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean spoke at a rally in Seattle on Thursday, saying he’s still waiting for Democrats to take a stand against President Bush on issues such as Iraq, education, health care and the deficit. Washington is holding its caucuses on Saturday.
He said his campaign has helped the Democratic Party find its voice again.
“Change is the biggest winner to date in the Democratic Party. Even the other Democrats in the race — the very Democrats who weren’t standing up to the president a year or two years ago — are beginning to adopt the message of change,” said Dean, adding that the party must “fight to restore the American Dream for working and middle class families.”
Dean, the former front-runner who has not come in first in any primaries to date, has called the Feb. 17 Wisconsin primary his “true test,” saying a win there would propel his campaign into the 10-state March 2 primaries and caucuses.
A tally of the Democratic candidates’ delegates going into the weekend’s primaries include:
* Kerry — 248
* Dean — 121
* Edwards — 102
* Clark — 81
* Rep. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. (no longer a candidate) — 25
* Gephardt (no longer a candidate) — 5
* Rev. Al Sharpton — 5
* Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio — 2
Out of a total of 4,322 delegates, 2,162 are needed to win the Democratic presidential nomination.