A race reshuffled

Kerry enters New Hampshire as the front-runner, with room for big surprises.

New Hampshire voters are famously independent. But as all eyes turn to their Democratic presidential primary next Tuesday, analysts believe John Kerry's stunning victory in far-from- home Iowa could have a powerful impact in the Granite State.

If there's one thing that unites Democrats, it's their intense desire to defeat President Bush. John Kerry, a fourth-term US senator from Massachusetts, has now passed that first test of "electability." He has won a hard-fought political race. That "winner" label, above all else, is likely to earn Senator Kerry a fresh look from a volatile electorate. Polls show that nearly half the Democratic electorate in New Hampshire remains either undecided or willing to switch candidates.

"There's nothing like winning to show people you're a winner," says Dick Bennett, head of American Research Group, a nonpartisan polling firm based in New Hampshire. "That's why Iowa was crucial for [Howard] Dean. He had to win Iowa. He's got to win New Hampshire big, because after that he runs out of gas."

Mr. Kerry and John Edwards, the North Carolina senator who also finished Iowa strong, winning a solid second place (32 percent of delegates to Kerry's 38 percent), benefited foremost from the spectacular decline of Mr. Dean, the former Vermont governor.

Dean could rebound

No one is counting Dean out yet. But if he does flame out as a candidate, after surging last spring with his fiery antiwar rhetoric, history will show that Dean largely defeated himself. His misstatements and gaffes, and the close scrutiny of his record in Vermont (aided, to be sure, by the press and his political opponents), revealed a candidate who many voters ultimately worried would not wear well in a tough general election battle against President Bush.

Even as recently as Monday night, Dean was probably not winning any new converts with his primal-scream concession speech in Iowa. To his supporters, his performance may have represented the kind of exuberance that won them to his side in the first place.

But to others, including some interviewed in New Hampshire Tuesday morning, it confirmed an image that is at times unpresidential. "I was in a state of shock," says Freda Smith from Salem, N.H., a John Kerry supporter. "He was yelling and screaming on that stage. He almost sounded incoherent."

Analysts note that even before the Iowa caucuses, Dean was starting to slip in New Hampshire, losing support to Kerry and Wesley Clark, the retired general who entered the race late and decided to skip Iowa. In the American Research Group polls, Dean has slipped in New Hampshire from 45 percent in December to 35 percent in early January to 27-28 percent for the past week.

Andy Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire, doesn't think the Iowa result will have much impact in New Hampshire.

"It's not like Iowa is causing that [Dean decline] to happen here," he says, ascribing the shifting numbers to the more moderate and conservative independents making up their minds. But clues on voter decisionmaking will be forthcoming daily, as tracking polls between provide a gauge of how voters are feeling.

The morning after Iowa, many questions remain:

• Did General Clark make a mistake in not contesting Iowa, as the momentum of the Kerry and Edwards campaigns threatens to take some of the oxygen away from the former NATO supreme commander?

• Does the ascent of Kerry, in particular, hurt Clark - both of whom are competing for much the same type of voter?

• Can Edwards, who continues to poll in New Hampshire in single digits and has minimal organization there, do respectably enough next Tuesday to make the surge he needs in the South, which has its first primary (South Carolina) on Feb. 3?

Taking the high ground

Edwards's positive campaign style and "son of a mill worker" biography have attracted some attention in New Hampshire. "I like his manner - the way he presents himself," says Sal Maduri from Salem, N.H., eating an egg-and-cheese sandwich at Sammy J's café.

Kerry, too, gets positive reviews from the breakfast crowd in Salem: "He's more focused, he's getting energized, and he's getting the message out about his war experience," says Ron Gale, a fireman from Atkinson, N.H. "He's getting better as he goes along."

In Iowa, observers agreed that Kerry and Edwards both benefited from a strong final week of campaigning in which they came across as focused and clear - unlike Dean, who seemed to lose his footing.

As the presumptive front-runner for months, Dean spent the final weeks of the race there on the defensive, fending off attacks from his rivals, and smoothing over his own misstatements and gaffes. He also struggled to find the right balance between the posture of an establishment front-runner and a feisty outsider.

Increased sniping between the campaigns of Dean and Dick Gephardt, the Missouri congressman who dropped out Tuesday after a poor fourth-place showing in Iowa, also have hurt both men, allowing Kerry and particularly Edwards to differentiate themselves as running more positive campaigns.

Positive messages

Kerry and Edwards "closed strong," says Jeff Link, an aide to Sen. Tom Harkin. "You could repeat John Edwards's message back: He said, 'I'm going to run a positive campaign, lift people up.' [Similarly,] Kerry was saying, 'I'm experienced, and I'm a veteran, and I'm ready.' " Dean, on the other hand, "wasn't able to communicate his core message because he was on the defensive," Mr. Link says.

Significantly, Kerry and Edwards have both been hitting strong populist notes, focusing on the clout of special interests in Washington. Both men have been drawing clear contrasts with Gephardt and Dean on taxes - with Gephardt and Dean calling for the complete rollback of the Bush tax cuts, and Kerry and Edwards arguing for preserving the reductions that benefited the middle class. Kerry, too, has been helped by what most analysts agree has been an effective TV spot touting his heroism and leadership in the Vietnam War.

Even more important, however, may be the decreasing importance of the war in Iraq as a campaign issue. Although the conflict dominated the campaign for months here, boosting Dean and creating problems for opponents like Kerry, it has receded - and even begun to work against Dean - in the wake of Saddam Hussein's capture. Strikingly, entrance polls in Iowa showed that Kerry, not Dean, won among Democrats who opposed the Iraq war.

The top priority all along for Iowa Democrats has been to nominate the candidate who would be the strongest opponent against President Bush, notes Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. And Mr. Hussein's capture - along with the questions being raised about Dean's temperament and overall electability - may have tipped the balance toward Kerry and Edwards.

"What happened for both Senators Kerry and Edwards was that in just the last week and a half, people really became much more comfortable with their candidacies. They began to look like the sort of people you could see running in November," he says, whereas "a lot of people were really worried about Governor Dean's ability to be a viable candidate against Bush."

While Dean's brash confidence may have drawn initial converts, in the end many voters here, in a state where civility in politics is prized, said they found him abrasive, and grew worried about his capacity to lead. Indeed, many said Dean reminded them of Bush.

In Winterset

At the caucuses in rural Winterset, where Edwards won handily and Kerry came in second, librarian Ann Newbury says she liked Dean at first, but then grew "uneasy about him," finding the candidate "arrogant." She came to the caucuses supporting Edwards, saying, "We need somebody who's a little more tactful."

Elaine Hoversten, a part-time psychologist, says she too was initially for Dean but later switched to Edwards. Dean's "vitriolic," she says, while Edwards impressed her with his ability to talk about issues "without being mean to Bush. I really appreciated that," she says.

The outcome also calls into question the strength of Dean's organization, while suggesting that Kerry may have had a hidden grass-roots weapon in the state's many veterans. Indeed, at the Winterset caucuses Tim Guion, an AFSCME member who works for the state of Iowa as a painter, says he broke with his union's recommendation for Dean to caucus for Kerry, because of Kerry's strength on "veterans' issues."

The next votes

Still, the question remains how permanent the reshuffling of the Democratic deck will be. While Dean suffered a huge defeat, he could quickly turn things around with a win in New Hampshire. He maintains impressive volunteer networks in many of the upcoming primary states - and the most money of any candidate. Yet a poor showing on his home turf next Tuesday could also be irreparable.

"Dean has to finish in the top two in New Hampshire or he is done," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

Both Kerry and Edwards, meanwhile, will likely see their war chests expand in coming days, as a result of their wins. And perhaps the biggest test of Dean's ability to bounce back may lie in the immediate response of his core supporters with their checkbooks: They have often responded to previous setbacks by donating to his campaign online. "If they respond by writing another check, Howard Dean's going to have a lot of life," says Mr. Link.

Alexandra Marks and Noel C. Paul in New Hampshire contributed to this report.

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