A drawn-out Democratic battle?

Nomination fight could extend well into March -- or even later.

John Kerry is on a roll. And Mary Durant is ready to ride with him.

After weeks of uncertainty about which candidate to support, this raven-haired Manchester Democrat emerged from a gymnasium packed with veterans and Kerry supporters a committed woman.

"I think he's got the right message, the right attitude, and the will to do it," she says, almost glowing as she clutches a glossy copy of "American Windsurfer" magazine with a picture of Mr. Kerry on the cover and the headline: "The Windsurfer Who Could Be President."

If Ms. Durant has her way, the Massachusetts senator will be nominated in short order "for the good of the party." Many in the Democratic establishment would like to see the same thing: not Kerry, per se, but at least some Democrat - reasonably soon.

Indeed, party leaders intentionally "frontloaded" the primary process, crowding together the post-New Hampshire caucuses and primaries to avoid the kind of drawn-out primary battle that could leave the eventual nominee broke and politically battered by his own party.

But despite Kerry's growing lead here in New Hampshire, some political analysts believe the nomination fight could now last well into March or even later, as it did in 1992 when Bill Clinton didn't wrap up the nomination until he swept New York and a handful of other primaries in early April.

It all depends, to some extent, on Kerry. If he wins, and wins big here in New Hampshire, that could propel him into the Feb. 3 "super Tuesday" races with a commanding lead and crucial media coverage that will be difficult for the other candidates to overcome.

"If Kerry wins by 20 points or more, that would be a very convincing victory and that would make him a convincing candidate," says Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "But he still needs to demonstrate support in other regions."

And here in New Hampshire the race remains highly volatile.

Premature epitaphs

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, though still recovering from the so-called "Dean Scream," has a solid base of support and a coffer full of cash. While many pundits have written him off, they had also written the epitaph for Kerry just a few weeks ago. Dean supporters believe their candidate regained his balance during Thursday night's television appearances: He held his own during the debate, showed a human side when he and his wife were interviewed by Diane Sawyer, and displayed a sense of humor on the David Letterman Show.

And then there's the fairness issue. Some voters here now think it was the media that went over the top in the way it played the damaging clip over and over.

"It's been played so much, it has dampened his support," says Eric Johnston, a chief financial officer from Manchester. "But people think the media's distorted it."

Then there's the congenial Southerner, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. He just needs to "show" here, capture a solid third place, before he moves on to his home territory. The fourth contender, Gen. Wesley Clark, although losing ground in the polls, still has a national reputation and an army of former Clinton advisers to keep him afloat after New Hampshire.

"People thought it was going to be over by Feb. 3, but that's less likely now," says Candice Nelson, director of the Campaign Management Institute in Washington D.C. "Dean and Kerry have the potential to raise more money because they've opted out of the public financing system," she says. "Edwards and Clark have a political disadvantage on the money side, but that's offset by the fact they're both from the South."

While party leaders don't necessarily like a drawn-out fight because of the toll it takes on the eventual nominee, some analysts see at least some virtue in a spirited nomination process.

"The good thing about a primary fight is that the eventual nominee gets better known and is tested by all of the various criticisms that pop up," says Mr. West. "But the downside is that the more Democrats slice one another up. It saves Republicans from having to do it."

Downside to frontloading

There's another downside to frontloading the process, too: Bunched, early primaries can lead to the election of what Anthony Corrado of the Brookings Institute calls a "brush fire" candidate.

"If a candidate can catch a wave at the right time, that momentum can catapult him to the nomination, even if he may not be the best choice for the party," says Dr. Corrado.

Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Dean was the man with the "Big Mo." He was going to take Iowa and New Hampshire and ride off with the nomination. But this week Kerry has taken on the mantle of would-be conqueror. If Kerry does win big here, he could well have the nomination wrapped up by early February.

While that would presumably give Democrats plenty of time to unite around one candidate and focus on the real target - George W. Bush - it could also alienate some of the party faithful. Corrado points out that, even if it takes until early March to choose a nominee, there is still likely to be one chosen even before a large share of the Democratic voters get to know the candidates and before 20 states have gone to the ballot box.

"So the system essentially disenfranchises 30 to 40 percent of the Democratic primary voters," he says. "Which means you have less participation, less knowledge about the candidates, and less engagement in the process by party members."

That's prompting some party activists to call for yet another reform of the system. But right now, eyes are focused on New Hampshire and the winnowing process that continues next Tuesday at the ballot box.

"It may end soon, but not necessarily next week," says William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston. "It may drag on for a couple of weeks, but I'd be very surprised it if lasted beyond mid-March."

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