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Democrats Set Stage for Conflict With GOP Over Health Coverage

By Robin Toner

The New York Times -- DES MOINES, Iowa

Ten years after the political collapse of President Bill Clinton’s health plan, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates are proposing, once again, major new programs for guaranteed, affordable health insurance, setting the stage for one of the starker contrasts with President Bush in the general election campaign.

The nine candidates for the Democratic nomination often disagree over ways to expand coverage and pay for it. But beneath these disagreements is a consensus that the country again faces a health care crisis of soaring costs and declining coverage.

Here, affordable health care is at the center of the middle-class populism most Democrats are advancing in campaign commercials and on the stump. At a speech here Tuesday morning, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, newly energized by The Des Moines Register’s endorsement on Sunday, declared that it was time to “make health care a birthright for every child born in America, for the first time in American history.”

Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who has built his campaign around a $214-billion-a-year plan that aims to cover every American, describes it as nothing short of a moral issue. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts says health care legislation will be the first bill he will send to Congress as president.

And Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, promotes his record of achieving near universal coverage of children in his state and often concludes, “This is not some crackpot liberal idea from Vermont; Harry Truman put universal health insurance in the 1948 Democratic platform!”

Like Edwards, Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut emphasize children.

And Carol Moseley Braun, Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich all advocate some form of national, government-run health insurance system.