TAMA, Iowa - Highly popular Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin endorsed Howard Dean for president yesterday, a big boost for the former Vermont governor and a major disappointment for the other Democratic candidates in Iowa's caucuses.
After months of indecision, Harkin's endorsement came at a particularly critical time for Dean, who is neck and neck with Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt in the Iowa polls and who was fending off criticism about 4-year-old comments in which he dismissed the caucuses as dominated by "extremists."
The Iowa caucuses, the first test of strength for Democratic candidates, are to be held a week from Monday.
Harkin told supporters in Des Moines that Dean is "our best shot to beat George W. Bush and to give Americans the opportunity to take our country back."
Harkin also praised Dean's straightforward approach to campaigning, and called Dean "the kind of plain-spoken Democrat we need."
Harkin told Dean of his decision Thursday evening.
Dean, campaigning in New Hampshire, welcomed the endorsement from Harkin, whom he called a "street fighter. We're going to need a street fighter to take on George Bush," he told CNN.
Gephardt, who served in the House with Harkin in the 1970s and worked with Harkin on the 1986-1987 farm bill, was disappointed but attempted to put the best face on the situation.
"I congratulate Howard Dean on that endorsement," Gephardt said, campaigning in Iowa. "But in the end, Iowa caucus-goers make the decision. Iowans are fiercely independent. You've got husbands and wives who go different ways in Iowa."
He said he had talked to Harkin three days earlier and had no hint that the senator was about to make the decision and did not get word of it in advance.
He heard about it from a reporter on a plane en route from New Hampshire to Iowa.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts shrugged off Harkin's endorsement, which his campaign had not expected, and mentioned his endorsement yesterday by Iowa's attorney general, Tom Miller.
The latest Iowa poll of 600 likely caucus-goers showed Dean with 29 percent, Gephardt with 25 percent and Kerry with 18 percent.
The Research 2000 poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points, making the Dean-Gephardt contest a draw.
Newsday staff writer Thomas Frank and the Associated Press contributed to this article. Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.