With the New Hampshire primary just four days away, the battle for the Democratic nomination may be focused on the Granite State. But behind the scenes, campaigns are gearing up for what will follow immediately thereafter: a multistate war.
The flurry of primaries that will come just one week from Tuesday is already putting financial and scheduling pressures on campaigns, forcing them to make critical decisions on where to send staff and purchase advertising. In a race with at least four strong contenders, it also adds a layer of unpredictability, creating a variety of potential paths to the nomination - and a looming roadblock that could quickly solidify or upend the dynamics of the race.
Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, where the contest is largely about momentum, the contests on Feb. 3 - in South Carolina, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Missouri, North Dakota, and Delaware - will award 269 delegates. And while New Hampshire and Iowa are intimate exercises in retail politics, the multistate phase that follows will put a premium on money and organization.
Significantly, the current front-runner in New Hampshire, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, has spent far less time and money in the Feb. 3 states than his rivals. Kerry is betting that a win in New Hampshire will create enough of a bounce to carry him through to victory in the primaries that follow - which may well happen. But should he lose here, he could have a harder time getting back on track.
Moreover, even if Kerry wins in New Hampshire, he may still face tough competition from candidates such as Sen. John Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who have made Feb. 3 a cornerstone of their strategy all along, banking, in particular, on wins in South Carolina.
Perhaps most intriguingly, Feb. 3 could offer former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean - who still has the most money and volunteers of any candidate - his best shot at a comeback.
In the case of Missouri, for example - which holds the most delegates of any of the Feb. 3 states, and has suddenly become wide open with the withdrawal of Rep. Dick Gephardt - analysts suggest Dean might be able to pull off a win with a massive infusion of cash and manpower.
"This is why money matters," says Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst in Washington. "You have opportunities that develop. If you can throw some big money on TV [in a state] and nobody else is doing stuff, you can steal it - legally steal it."
Certainly, New Hampshire will still play a critical role in shaping the field - and influencing what happens on Feb. 3. History shows that the eventual nominees almost always finish at least in the top three in Iowa and the top two in New Hampshire.
And it's possible that the compressed calendar will make the New Hampshire results even more important than ever before, since losers will have little time to recover - a dynamic that is already playing out in the wake of the Iowa caucuses, as Kerry has shot ahead of Dean in the polls.
Still, there are reasons to believe that the effect could also be the opposite. Several candidates have already made clear they won't drop out of the race, regardless of what happens in the Granite State: All the top-tier candidates claim to have enough money to fight through Feb. 3, and several say they could go on beyond that.
The outcome of the seven primaries themselves could decisively tip the race, or muddy it further.
"What's going to happen on [Feb. 3] is very unclear," says one Democratic campaign strategist. "Probably the likeliest outcome is that there will be a split result."
Kerry and Edwards both have raised significant amounts of money on the heels of their Iowa victories. But so has Dean: His campaign reported raising more than $500,000 on the Internet since Monday. And Kerry and Edwards are still playing catch-up, having raised far less than Dean or Clark in the fourth quarter of last year.
And Kerry is behind by most measures in the Feb. 3 races. He pulled staff out of those states months ago, in an all-out effort to win in Iowa, and he is also the only top-tier candidate who has not been running ads in any of those places.
The state that has garnered the most attention so far is South Carolina, which offers a critical test of the candidates' appeal in the South and with African-American voters.
Analysts say South Carolinians are only just beginning to tune into the race - and that Edwards's strong showing in Iowa has already positioned him well there.
Despite the impending New Hampshire contest, the North Carolina senator took time to stop by South Carolina this week - and some say the New Hampshire results may not matter as much at this point.
"As long as he doesn't just utterly bomb out in New Hampshire, he'll be a major factor here," says Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
Still, it's likely to be a highly competitive race. Edwards has had the largest ground force in South Carolina to date, focusing on rural areas, the black community, and college campuses. Dean also has college networks, though most organizational meetings at the College of Charleston have been averaging around 15 students.
And while most candidates are relying on volunteers, Clark is actually hiring students to canvas, the only one to do so. Kerry (who until recently was languishing behind Carol Moseley-Braun in state polls) is focusing on swaying older voters and veterans.
The Rev. Al Sharpton has also made a strong push in the state, focusing on black churches.
A critical factor may be whether popular African-American Rep. James Clyburn, who had endorsed Dick Gephardt, now throws his weight behind someone else.
Candidates are also making big plays for Arizona and Oklahoma. And Missouri has suddenly become the biggest wild-card of the day - with campaigns furiously working to win endorsements and support in the state in the wake of Gephardt's departure.
Since no one has an organization there to speak of, money could be the most important factor, giving Dean and Clark an advantage. Kerry and Clark are also hoping for support from the state's many veterans.
"The campaigns are scrambling to try to find ways to get an organization going," says Missouri Democratic chairwoman May Scheve.
The state could also wind up supplanting South Carolina as an even more important test, since no candidate has a regional advantage there.
Missouri was a key battleground in the 2000 general election, and is likely to be one of the most contested states this year as well - creating another incentive for Democratic candidates to prove they can run well there.
• Patrik Jonsson in Raleigh, N.C. , and Linda Feldmann in Washington contributed to this report.