DURHAM, N.H. — DURHAM, N.H. - Howard Dean's fading presidential fortunes will be at the center of attention tonight as the 2004 Democratic candidates hold their final debate before the New Hampshire primary.
Sen. John Kerry, the victor in Monday's Iowa caucuses, and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark are likely to receive heightened scrutiny in the two-hour TV forum. Kerry has zoomed past Dean in polling here, while Clark, who skipped the past three debates, is also in contention.
Sen. John Edwards, the runner-up in Iowa, and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who has concentrated on this state, will also be attempting to sway undecided voters in a climate that remains volatile, five days before the election.
But it is Dean who, once again, is at the center of the presidential contest. Only this time, it is because of increasing questions about the fate of the former front-runner's candidacy.
Dean, after a brief visit to New Hampshire yesterday morning, tried to regroup with strategists at his Burlington, Vt., headquarters. The former Vermont governor has yet to stop a slide that appears to be accelerating after his weak third-place finish in Iowa and an even more disastrous caucus-night speech.
As recently as last month, Dean led his nearest challenger by more than 20 points in New Hampshire. But a tracking survey, released yesterday by The Boston Globe and WBZ radio, showed Kerry moving past him into first place. Other surveys showed Clark gaining slightly, and Dean losing ground.
Also trailing were Lieberman of Connecticut and Edwards of North Carolina.
Some voters who were leaning toward Dean are searching for an alternative. Rita Calamari, a retired lawyer here, said she is undecided after "Dean imploded" Monday.
"I think he's a very honorable, honest guy, but he can't take the heat, for some reason," she said while waiting to hear Clark speak on the University of New Hampshire campus.
Dean, fighting a head cold, tried to shift the subject away from his performance as a candidate. During a pep talk at his state headquarters in New Hampshire, he proposed reducing the maximum individual contribution allowed under federal campaign law to $250, from $2,000.
"I'm not the front-runner anymore. So now I'll hopefully have a better chance of getting my message out," Dean told WMUR-TV in Manchester.
After losing his lead, Dean might no longer be a prime target of his opponents' attacks. But the problems of his campaign, rather than his position on the issues, are now a major focus of the race.
Speculation is growing that he might be unable to salvage his candidacy, which employed the Internet to smash fund-raising records and build him a devoted national following.
James Carville, who ran Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992, likened Dean's fall to the collapse of companies such as Pets.com, when the dot-com bubble burst.
"I've never seen a faster ascent or descent," said Carville, a Dean critic who is not working for any of the candidates. He said he did not think Dean could survive the largely self-inflicted damage to his campaign, which some have compared to Clinton's troubles in this state 12 years ago.
As a little-known governor from Arkansas, Clinton spent weeks battling personal charges, including allegations that he dodged the military draft, and questions about his marriage. He and his wife, Hillary, appeared on 60 Minutes' to address the matter, two nights before the primary. Clinton managed to salvage a second-place finish and went on to win the nomination.
Dean might face an even more difficult task in turning his campaign around. Unlike Clinton, who was fighting allegations made by others about his past behavior, Dean's problems are of his own making - and have been witnessed, repeatedly, by millions of voters.
The Vermonter's whooping, arm-waving, caucus-night speech has made him the object of ridicule by late-night TV comics. Video of Dean, doctored to show his head exploding at the end of his fiery remarks, was shown on CBS and ABC Tuesday night, and again yesterday morning on ABC. Meantime, conservative talk radio stations in New Hampshire, and across the country, were delightedly re-running audio tapes of Dean's words.
To the volunteers at his headquarters, Dean said that "the way we are going to win in New Hampshire is to stick to the formula that got us here, and that's to stand up for what we think is right, whether we think it's popular or not."
But wistful notes have begun creeping into the comments of his supporters.
Rob Stryker, a 20-year-old New Yorker, who took a semester off from college to help set up Web sites for Dean, had been thinking of extending his unpaid stay with the campaign beyond March because things were going so well.
Now, he is not sure what he'll do and is trying to take consolation in Dean's earlier successes: raising record amounts of money through small donations, reaching voters through the Internet and becoming the leading anti-Iraq war candidate in the race.
"Whether or not the campaign wins or loses, we have had a victory: We've changed the discussion," said Stryker.
Perhaps chastened by the results in Iowa, where voters complained about the negative tenor of the race, the Democratic candidates have been toning down their attacks on each other in New Hampshire. Instead, they have stepped up their criticism of President Bush.
Kerry of Massachusetts, during a speech in Nashua, emphasized his health care proposals, which would allow Americans to buy prescription drugs from Canada and let the federal government negotiate cheaper drug prices for Medicare recipients.
Clark, at a VFW hall in Portsmouth, said there was a "fundamental difference" between Bush and those like himself and the group of fellow military veterans that joined him onstage.
"When we dress up in military attire, we don't have to go out and rent a flight suit," said Clark, referring to the president's landing on an aircraft carrier last year, "because when you actually fight a war, they let you keep the uniform."
Edwards, who has tried to position himself as the most positive candidate in the race, took a swipe at his rivals from New England during a day in which he made stops in South Carolina and New Hampshire. He argued that he was the Democrat best able to defeat Bush and help the party in all parts of the country, including the South.