New Hampshire forecast aside: some campaign givens

Forecasting the outcome of the New Hampshire primary is a fool's game. Polls at this time of year are inherently unreliable. There are too many undecideds, too many last-minute changes of mind. On top of that there is New Hampshire's history of making pollsters look silly.

In 2000, some tracking polls showed a dead heat between George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain. People tuned to the TV coverage expecting to stay up late ... and went to bed early. Senator McCain won by 18 points.

The polls up north this year show a muddled mess. Some have Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts far ahead of the pack with a bunch of candidates behind slugging it out for second, third, fourth, and even fifth. Others see a closer race with a clearer separation - Senator Kerry, Governor Dean, Sen. John Edwards, Gen. Wesley Clark, all locked into specific places.

The bottom line? Guess if you want, but it might to be tough to explain that runaway victory by Dennis Kucinich Wednesday morning. So going into Tuesday night, a viewer's guide to the results, whatever they may be:

John Kerry. In a confusing week, perhaps the only thing anyone can say for sure is that Kerry scored the biggest photo-op victory when he got decked out in full hockey regalia and somehow managed to look good. He scored two goals in the charity game he skated in and one of them actually looked decent on highlights. In one day he tempted fate by challenging two central tenets of campaign conventional wisdom - never get filmed wearing a helmet and never put yourself in a potentially embarrassing situation - and came out ahead.

If he wins big Tuesday night - that is, if he wins by double digits - he's firmly in the driver's seat heading into the seven primaries and caucuses on Feb. 3, and is probably well on his way to the nomination this summer. If it's closer than that, expect the other candidates to make things interesting for a while. If he loses, which is extremely unlikely, all bets are off.

Howard Dean. The good news for Dean is that last week is over. That, and the makers of the "Star Wars" films have announced they would like him to be the voice of a new character they've created. The interview he and his wife did on ABC showed voters another side of the man and helped stop his slide.

The bad news is that he needed another week to really turn things around in New Hampshire. That said, if he can get within single digits of Kerry, he can probably gather momentum, roll into the next week's new set of votes looking to win a state or two and hope to make a stand in Michigan on Feb. 7. Anything below second and it's time to head back to Vermont.

John Edwards. He simply doesn't have a lot to lose in New Hampshire. Until last week, no one expected him to do very well. The North Carolina senator has spent more time and money in South Carolina, where he intends to make his pitch that only a Southerner can win the White House. Edwards isn't in a bad position here. His positive message strategy has made him difficult to campaign against - who wants to slug Bambi? And another good night, a second or third, makes him for real.

Wesley Clark. The polls presage a low finish and if they're right - perhaps a big if - the general faces a tough road. Kerry's Iowa victory stole much of the rationale for his candidacy (someone who could beat Bush because he was strong on defense and wasn't Howard Dean) and he seems to be struggling. This weekend's weirdest moment may have been actor Ted Danson's interview at a Clark rally on C-SPAN where he outlined why he supports Clark. Ted Danson? Sure, but where does the cast of "Friends" stand?

Clark needs to finish at least third to keep his candidacy moving forward. Second would be nice. Fourth, and it might be time to make a guest appearance on "Becker."

But despite the hype and pseudo-events in New Hampshire this week - the rallies, the hockey, the scream analysis - the most significant news didn't come from the Granite State. It came from, of all things, a poll. A Newsweek survey showed that 52 percent of Americans want a new occupant in the White House next January, while 44 percent want Bush reelected. The poll, taken after Bush had center stage at the State of the Union, suggests that as voters begin to pay attention to the campaign, they have some doubts about the president's job performance. It's only a snapshot in time, of course, subject to a lot of change. But it has damaged one of Bush's biggest weapons, his air of inevitability.

For months Democrats have been wondering who the best candidate is to beat Bush. The numbers suggest all that talk was not idle chatter and give new significance to Tuesday night's results.

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