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In N.H., what a difference a week makes

Results of Iowa caucuses transform first primary into a wide-open race

By Julie Hirschfeld Davis

Sun National Staff

January 20, 2004

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MANCHESTER, N.H. - Survivors of last night's Iowa caucuses will be hitting the icy ground here today to find a vastly different state than the New Hampshire of just a week ago, with Sen. John Kerry and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark surging and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean scrambling to retain his front-runner status.

Kerry, a four-term senator from neighboring Massachusetts, hopes to parlay his smashing come-from-behind victory in Iowa into the kind of political momentum that until last week had eluded him in the Granite State.

"I have only just begun to fight," Kerry exulted last night, standing before cheering supporters in Iowa. Hours later, he was to board an overnight flight to Manchester and kick off his campaign with a daybreak rally at the airport.

Dean, who led here by a seemingly insurmountable 25 percentage points not long ago, must quickly recover from Iowa, where he ran a dismal third behind Kerry and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. He will be fighting to hang on to what the most recent polls show to be a high single-digit lead with barely a week to go until this state's first-in-the-nation primary next Tuesday.

For Edwards, who is running well behind his rivals in the polls here, his strong second-place finish in Iowa - which was almost as stunning as Kerry's victory - could give New Hampshire voters a reason to rethink his candidacy.

Voters here also will have one less major candidate to consider as they make their final decisions in the coming week. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the 14-term House veteran from Missouri and former Democratic leader, dropped out of the race after finishing fourth in Iowa. He had been running sixth in New Hampshire.

The Iowa results transformed the contest here - until recently a stagnant one with Dean far in the lead, and Kerry and Clark a distant second and third - into a wide-open race.

"It becomes a real free-for-all," said Dante J. Scala, a political science professor at St. Anselm College in Manchester. "New Hampshire was basically the equivalent of a frozen pond for weeks."

Now, Scala said, "the ice has broken."

Kerry has gained dramatically in polls here in the past week, and his first-place showing in Iowa makes it likely that he will get a second chance to make his case to New Hampshire voters.

For Dean, Iowa's results are a serious blow, depriving him of any bounce heading to New Hampshire and forcing him to battle for every vote here.

Less than two hours into the caucuses last night, Dean seemed to suggest that he was grateful even to have made it into the top three in Iowa, telling CNN, "I guess that means we're winnowed in." As for New Hampshire, he added, "It's a new day - a new state." Turning his gaze eastward, he said, "On to New Hampshire."

A statewide American Research Group tracking poll conducted over the weekend showed Kerry and Clark tied for second in New Hampshire - with 19 percent and 20 percent, respectively - closing in on Dean at 28 percent.

Clark, who skipped Iowa to concentrate on New Hampshire and has enjoyed a surge here this month, seemed ready to engage in some political hand-to-hand combat with his newly arrived opponents, especially Kerry. As preliminary results showed Kerry winning in Iowa, Clark fired a zinger at the senator via CNN, telling Larry King, "I'm not worried about John Kerry or anybody else. With all due respect, he's a lieutenant, I'm a general."

Clark - who was campaigning yesterday in South Carolina, which holds its primary in two weeks - has been wooing voters in New Hampshire by promoting himself as an electable leader in a field of typical politicians. Now he must grapple with an onslaught of criticism from his rivals. The success in Iowa for Kerry, who served in Vietnam and has substantial grass-roots backing among veterans groups, gives him the political heft to forcefully challenge the retired general as a viable alternative to President Bush on national security issues.

Last night, Kerry predicted that voters in New Hampshire will respond to his views on domestic matters. He then added, "At the same time, we need a leader who can make Americans safer in the world."

Kerry hopes to revitalize his campaign here in his own back yard, where so far it has sparked little of the excitement it generated in Iowa. Once seen as a native New England son who could easily do well here, Kerry has had to scramble to appeal to New Hampshire voters even as crowds in Iowa greeted him warmly.

"I'm the underdog in New Hampshire still," Kerry told CNN early today.

In recent days, some of the sparkle that surrounded Kerry in Iowa seemed to be rubbing off on New Hampshire voters, as statewide polls have shown him gaining. Still, Kerry, a well-known senator who has campaigned hard in New Hampshire and is familiar in the region, can't sell himself as a new face.

"I can't see that many voters will stop and re-evaluate John Kerry because he did well in Iowa," said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire polling center. "They already know the guy."

But the performance in Iowa could convince voters to give Kerry a second look, especially as Democrats search for a candidate who has the strength to prevail against Bush. As Dean's support has flagged here in recent days, some voters considering Clark and Kerry have said they don't believe the Vermonter is a viable candidate despite his early appeal.

Dean arrives here with a weaker claim to the title of front-runner than he had before Iowa's caucuses, but he has not entirely lost it. His early underdog status helped propel him to a strong lead in the polls, and campaign aides hope the tightened field in New Hampshire will energize his supporters again. And if any candidate has the potential to recover from a worse-than-expected finish in Iowa - or even in New Hampshire - it could be Dean.

With plenty of campaign cash still in his coffers and a formidable grass-roots operation in key states, Dean could make up lost ground in the coming weeks and still emerge with the nomination.

Edwards was hoping that the same expectations game that hurt Dean in Iowa and has historically defined so much of that state's notoriously quirky caucuses would work to his advantage in New Hampshire.

Perhaps the least-known top-tier candidate, Edwards has a good chance to capitalize on his unexpectedly strong boost in Iowa. His determination to run a positive campaign with a hopeful - and not angry - message could allow him to emerge as a positive alternative to his opponents if the others continue to attack each other.

The American Research Group poll showed Edwards in fourth place with 8 percent.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who like Clark skipped last night's Iowa contest to concentrate on New Hampshire, has yet to reap the benefits of that strategy. Unlike Clark, Lieberman has not seen an uptick in attention or popularity in New Hampshire; polls show him in fifth place.

Still, according to recent surveys, roughly 15 percent of voters are undecided, a sign that the contest remains fluid. And New Hampshire has a well-earned reputation for being contrarian, bucking the conventional wisdom to pick its own breed of winner.

"People in New Hampshire really don't like to be told how to vote - they get very fickle with that," said David Lang, president of the Professional Firefighters Union of New Hampshire, which is backing Kerry. "New Hampshire, above all else, doesn't like it when people from the outside come in and tell them what they're expected to do."