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Kerry retools campaign, reshapes the 2004 race

MANCHESTER, N.H. — MANCHESTER, N.H. - By that Sunday in November, when he huddled with advisers in his Boston townhouse, John Kerry's high-flying candidacy had plunged to earth. Money was drying up, and Howard Dean was relentlessly grinding Kerry into the rocky soil of next-door New Hampshire.

With his presidential dream looking nightmarish, the Massachusetts senator shook up his staff, retooled his message, dug deeply into his personal wealth and launched a last-ditch try to turn his campaign around.

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That effort to "change the dynamics" of his candidacy, as Kerry put it then, has radically altered the shape of the 2004 presidential race. "Comeback Kerry" landed here yesterday, the surprise winner of the Iowa caucuses and the man best positioned to become the new Democratic front-runner in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.

Kerry's triumph in America's heartland is propelling him into the lead in New Hampshire polling. But he faces challenges that will test his ability to sustain that momentum.

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For example, New Hampshire is the only state where his cash-strapped organization is airing commercials now. Several of his rivals, including Dean, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, are on the air elsewhere, in addition to New Hampshire.

Kerry has loaned his campaign $6.4 million, by mortgaging his house on Louisburg Square in the Beacon Hill section of Boston. His wife, heiress Teresa Heinz Kerry, whose fortune has been estimated at $500 million, is an active member of his campaign but federal campaign finance law prohibits him from tapping her wealth.

His decision to opt out of the federal matching funds system allowed Kerry to ignore the state spending limits that the other candidates, except Dean who also opted out, must follow. That enabled Kerry to blanket Iowa with television and radio ads, though extensive news coverage of his surging poll numbers might have been a more important factor.

One change Kerry advisers say they are expecting after his victory in Iowa is that he will face more intense attacks from Democratic opponents in New Hampshire, where politics is a rougher game.

By the time his candidacy began taking off three weeks ago, Kerry had managed to put the contentious split within his campaign staff behind him.

The internal fighting reached a low point around the time he formally kicked off his campaign in September, when the warring factions famously produced different versions of his announcement speech. Soon after, his communications director, Chris Lehane, now a senior member of the Clark campaign, left the Kerry camp, reportedly because he felt the senator was overly cautious in responding to Dean's rise.

In mid-November, Kerry fired his campaign manager and hired Mary Beth Cahill, a Democratic veteran. Cahill is a former chief of staff to Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who campaigned with Kerry on the final two weekends in Iowa in spite of a history of cool relations between them.

With just a week left until the New Hampshire primary, Kerry is attempting to rekindle the support that deserted him in the state after months of intensive campaign activity. His campaign is hoping that his Iowa rebound will lead voters here, where he is well-known, to give Kerry a second look - or, in some cases, a third or fourth.

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Questions for rivals

Of course, most of his rivals would be happy to be in his position. Several suddenly find themselves facing new questions here. They include:

Can Clark, the biggest mystery of the Democratic race, capitalize on Dean's fall? In recent weeks, he's made steady progress here and could gain support if anti-war voters abandon Dean.

But Clark has largely had this state to himself while the major contenders battled in Iowa. His voter appeal remains untested, as does the novice candidate's ability to cope with the heightened scrutiny he'll probably get now from opponents and the news media.

Can Edwards' campaign organization catch up with the man who became the hottest candidate at the end of the Iowa campaign, when his crowds were larger and more enthusiastic than anyone's?

The North Carolina senator is counting on neighboring South Carolina to be his breakthrough state, a week from Tuesday, but he is not as well established elsewhere. His strong finish in Iowa could give him a lift in New Hampshire, which has often been kind to newcomers who score a big caucus surprise.

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By far the biggest questions revolve around Dean, who in some ways is the mirror image of Edwards. In recent months, Dean's organization has outperformed its candidate, who has reacted poorly in recent days to adversity, including the first defeat of his political career on Monday.

A standard yardstick of presidential politics is that the candidate raising the most money in the year before the election becomes the nominee. Dean broke the fund-raising record last year.

But unless the former Vermont governor can reverse his downward momentum, his path to the nomination could become increasingly difficult. If Dean does rebound - while sprinting coast to coast through 28 states, including Maryland, over the next six weeks - he will be replicating what Kerry did over a much longer period in a single state.

Kerry advisers say Iowa made their man a better candidate, forcing him to condense the themes of a lengthy stump speech into a populist message he calls the "Real Deal." The heart of that appeal -- that Kerry fights for ordinary people against powerful special interests such as oil companies and drug manufacturers - is the same one that one of his key strategists, Bob Shrum, used to help Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt win Iowa in 1988.

"As voters began to give the candidates a more intense look, Kerry was connecting with people," said Tad Devine, a Kerry strategist. "Dean had some real problems, obviously, and Kerry got a second look from a lot of people. Winning Iowa will help us, because this was a test of real strength and of whether you can connect well with people."

Now that Kerry is on home turf in New England, one test will be to prove that voters here have finally warmed up to a politician often described as cold and aloof. Some who watched Kerry campaigning in Iowa aren't convinced that he's changed much.

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"The question is still: Can John Kerry project a warmth, and can he connect with people?" said Charles Cook, who publishes an independent newsletter on politics.

How Kerry won

In Iowa, "perfect stormers" was the term Dean applied to his most rabid supporters, who journeyed to the state on his behalf. Instead, it was Kerry who benefited in the end from a unique confluence of events - including Dean's collapse and unprecedented, media-driven momentum, which defied the rule that, in Iowa, organization matters most of all.

Opposition to the Iraq war, once the pivotal issue in the Democratic race, appears to be less important since the capture of Saddam Hussein, based on surveys of caucusgoers and campaign events in recent weeks.

Kerry's victory margin in Iowa came from anti-war voters who were willing to overlook his support for the Iraq war resolution, a survey of caucusgoers showed, in order to back the candidate they considered best able to defeat President Bush.

Questions about Kerry's position on the war, which dogged his candidacy for much of last year and led some Democrats to view him as overly calculating, have faded, at least in Iowa.

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Instead, Kerry found himself in the perfect spot when Iowa voters became disillusioned with Dean and began to question whether he would be their best choice to oppose Bush. As Democrats searched for an alternative, Gephardt struck many as yesterday's man, while Edwards lacked the experience some were looking for.

That left Kerry, who poured everything into an Iowa campaign that drew the support of the state's first lady and a small army of military veterans, as the only real choice.

His strategy of staking everything on Iowa made Kerry the new man to beat in the '04 race. His New Hampshire turnaround had already begun, at least in the polls, before the caucus results were in. He may now be the favorite here, despite his effort to portray himself as an underdog.

But the nation's first primary will be a very different contest than Iowa's. Practical concerns, such as finding the candidate best able to defeat Bush, may not drive the decisions here to the extent that they did in Iowa.

Independent voters, who made the difference in Arizona Sen. John McCain's upset victory over Bush four years ago in the Republican primary here, can - and will - participate in the Democratic contest, a potential plus for Clark.

This has often been very friendly turf for candidates from Massachusetts - Michael S. Dukakis won here in 1988, as did Paul E. Tsongas in 1992. But the rules of presidential campaigns have been broken already in the 2004 race and may be in the process of being rewritten again.


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