In volatile race, Kerry leads heading into key vote

Beyond who wins Tuesday in New Hampshire, the race for second is critical to next primaries.

Just one day before the New Hampshire primary, Sen. John Kerry seems poised to pull off a decisive win here - a result that would give him an unusual pair of back-to-back early primary victories and put him in a strong position to win the Democratic nomination.

With polls showing Kerry more than 10 points ahead of his closest competitors, the battle is in many ways shifting to the race for second place: Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is struggling to hold onto his diminishing support in the Granite State, locked in close contention with retired Gen. Wesley Clark and a rising Sen. John Edwards. Sen. Joseph Lieberman is close behind.

In many ways, the nomination contest has come full circle, with Senator Kerry once again the establishment front-runner, and his rivals positioning themselves as outsider alternatives.

Yet the race's volatility in recent weeks lends it a backdrop of uncertainty, with observers holding out the possibility of a last-minute surge by Edwards or a comeback from Dean. Even a strong second place on Tuesday might give one of Kerry's rivals enough momentum to win several states on Feb. 3, where Kerry has less of an edge, potentially shaking up the race.

Indeed, observers say that if the race has proved anything so far, it's this: While momentum is shifting extremely quickly, it's more important than ever - making the New Hampshire outcome unusually critical for all the candidates.

"If I were advising any one of these candidates, I'd say the only prospect you've got of doing well on Feb. 3 is to first do well in New Hampshire," says William Mayer, a Northeastern University expert on the primaries. If Kerry wins here, he adds, "I think he's going to be difficult to stop."

As a relatively sudden front-runner, Kerry has benefited from both the timing and circumstances surrounding his surge. Having been so far behind in the polls for so long, a win in New Hampshire would probably be seen as a significant victory, despite Kerry's inherent advantage here as a senator from a neighboring state.

Likewise, coming out of Iowa, most campaigns seemed to believe that attacks would backfire - as they had done against Rep. Dick Gephardt and Dean in the caucuses - allowing Kerry to escape much fire throughout the week. This dynamic began to change over the weekend, as Dean criti-cized Kerry for his votes on the Iraq war and the 1991 Gulf War.

Still, New Hampshire is famous for last-minute surprises, and voters here more often than not wind up overturning the results from Iowa - a fact that Dean repeats to audiences. While tuesday's primary will likely winnow the field, it could also give a boost to more than one candidate, depending on the closeness of the outcome. The last two presidents came in second in New Hampshire, underscoring the importance of that second-place slot.

Much of the battle hinges on Dean and whether he can regain the support of voters whose allegiance wavered after his Iowa loss and his now-infamous concession speech.

Certainly, many of his core supporters seem more enthusiastic than ever. At a town-hall meeting on the New Hampshire seacoast, Judy Wagner says she's supported Dean from the start and still believes he has a better chance than Kerry of beating George Bush.

"It's going to be a lot easier to have someone ... who has proven he can balance budgets, than someone who can be labeled another big-spending liberal from Massachusetts," she says.

And some undecided voters say they're reassured by seeing Dean. After hearing him at a tavern in Nashua, Jonathan Eunice says Dean's Iowa speech "certainly raised the temperament question" for him. But he was impressed with the former Vermont governor's appearance here, citing his unwillingness to "pander." Still, he's torn between Dean and Edwards.

Given the huge lead Dean enjoyed here just a short time ago, many believe he has a reserve of support that polls may underestimate, and that could propel him to a surprisingly strong showing.

"Dean has had a unique ... relationship with the voters of New Hampshire over the course of the last year," says a rival campaign strategist. But for that reason, the aide adds, anything other than a strong second place could doom his candidacy: "If Dean can't win in New Hampshire, it's hard to imagine he can win anywhere."

As Dean works to bring undecided voters back to his column, his rivals have been scrambling to win them over, too. Edwards's campaign believes the North Carolina senator - who has been running as a fresh-faced outsider promising to change the culture of Washington - may be particularly well positioned to pick up disillusioned Dean supporters.

"We are running an insurgent campaign," says adviser David Axelrod. "There's a lot about our message that would be appealing to Dean voters."

At an Edwards event in Rochester, Ann Schulz says she started the year leaning toward Edwards, then migrated to Dean as Edwards lagged in the polls - and now is back with her original choice. Similarly, Anne Melvin was a committed Dean backer until "he shot himself in the foot in Iowa." Now, she's choosing between Edwards and Kerry. "It's a tossup," she says, explaining, Kerry's "got the experience," but Edwards "has got charisma." "The big thing is who can beat Bush," she says.

Alexandra Marks contributed to this report from New Castle, N.H.

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