Kerry commands momentum as race goes national

But Southern primaries will test his front-runner strength.

With a resounding win in the New Hampshire primary election, John Kerry has become the undisputed frontrunner in the Democratic primary contest - and has taken a significant step toward winning his party's nomination.

Senator Kerry's double-digit victory over second-place finisher Howard Dean makes him only the third Democrat in the modern primary era to post back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, along with Al Gore and Jimmy Carter. By capturing 39 percent of the vote, Kerry also grabbed the highest vote total of any Democrat in New Hampshire in the past 30 years, in races with more than two candidates.

It all represents a stunning turnaround for a candidate who less than a month ago was trailing so badly here that some suggested he should drop out of the race. The contest seemed Dr. Dean's to lose.

Still, Kerry's path to the convention isn't entirely clear, as he heads toward his biggest test yet: a series of seven primaries in the South and West next week. Although Kerry's New Hampshire win may quickly shoot him to the top of the polls, he has so far invested far less time and money in the Feb. 3 states than many of his rivals, and the contests will be held in regions of the country that may be less hospitable to a man whom Republicans are already deriding as a "Massachusetts liberal."

As the new frontrunner, Kerry will almost certainly come under greater scrutiny - and attack - in coming days. And he still faces rivals such as Dean, who could have enough money and supporters to remain competitive for some time. Indeed, Dean signaled the potential for a long battle when he referred in his concession speech to the money he's received from small donors as "how we're going to keep going and going and going."

"It's not done," says independent pollster John Zogby. "Generally you would say, anybody who puts together two impressive victories in Iowa and New Hampshire ought to sail through," and if Kerry wins the majority of contests next week, that may happen. Although Kerry's "the real frontrunner, he's not going into friendly turf."

Certainly, Kerry is moving quickly to make up ground in the Feb. 3 states - and to capitalize on what will likely be a significant bounce coming out of New Hampshire. His campaign is going up with ads in all seven states starting Wednesday, and Kerry has said he'll campaign in person in all seven as well.

"We are going to compete everywhere," says Kerry spokesman Michael Meehan. "We're not conceding any state to any one of our opponents." He notes pointedly that Kerry will spend two of the next three days in South Carolina - states where Sen. John Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley Clark have been campaigning steadily and where there has been some speculation that Kerry might largely pass.

By contrast, Kerry's rivals are likely to take more targeted approaches to Feb. 3, in an effort to make the most efficient use of their war chests and simply come up with some wins to slow Kerry's momentum.

Senator Edwards, who finished fourth, slightly behind General Clark, will focus intensively on South Carolina, a state he has said he must win, though he'll also spend some time in Oklahoma and Missouri, among others.

Clark plans to travel to Oklahoma, South Carolina, Arizona, and New Mexico. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who finished fifth in New Hampshire, is hoping to win Delaware, and is targeting Oklahoma as well. Dean's travel plans were not yet set, with the former governor heading first to Vermont for the day. But his campaign indicated he would spend time in Arizona and New Mexico - as well as several states whose primaries come after Feb. 3, such as Michigan and Wisconsin. Dean's campaign says he has raised $1.5 million in the past week alone, and will have the resources to continue for some time.

While Dean's second-place finish was clearly a disappointment, aides note that it did represent something of a turnaround, given the free-fall the former Vermont governor found himself in coming out of his third-place Iowa loss and his now-famous concession "scream."

"This isn't the finish that we'd like - we worked very hard and wanted to win New Hampshire - but we feel very proud of our showing," says Dorie Clark, Dean's New Hampshire spokeswoman. "We had a bit of a deficit coming down after Iowa and we were able to make up some of that ground."

But Dean has certainly been hurt by a growing perception among voters that he is "unelectable." According to exit polls, four in 10 voters said Dean does not have a presidential temperament - and of those, 54 percent voted for Kerry. Of the one in five voters who said the quality that mattered most was ability to defeat Bush, Kerry won 62 percent.

Half of all voters said they were "angry" at the Bush administration, but significantly, they were as likely to back Kerry as Dean. Among the more than four in 10 primary voters who strongly disapproved of the war in Iraq, Kerry also won roughly the same number of votes as Dean.

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