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Real test lies ahead


DESPITE HIS TWO impressive victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has not yet closed the sale with Democratic voters.

A critical factor in Mr. Kerry's emergence as top dog in the competition for the Democratic presidential nomination, after months of lackluster campaigning, is what happened to the early front-runner, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, in those two opening contests.

Dr. Dean's weak third in the Iowa caucuses and only a somewhat improved second in the New Hampshire primary have created a circumstance for voters to take a second look at a candidate who had been running so poorly in New Hampshire that his strategists shifted their focus to Iowa.

Dr. Dean's early surge, built on impressive Internet fund raising and creation of a grass-roots army of volunteers, meanwhile, made him a target of the other candidates, concerned he would nail down the nomination before any of them could get out of the starting gate.

As they pounded at Dr. Dean, probing for a vulnerability that might slow him down, the former small-state long-shot cooperated with a series of careless statements that raised questions about his sure-footedness and, hence, about his electability.

Then, on caucus night in Iowa, his tirade that was intended to fire up his troops instead fanned more doubts about his stability and his ability to achieve the one unifying objective of all of the Democrats - beating President Bush in November.

Into the breach came Mr. Kerry, with a strong, revamped Iowa organization and a rM-isumM-i that emphasized his experience in foreign policy, national security and military affairs, which none of the other candidates contending there could match.

The immediate speculation was that Dr. Dean's erratic behavior would be the kiss of death for his candidacy. In New Hampshire, a subdued Dr. Dean and his loyal followers recovered somewhat, but not enough to mount an effective challenge to Mr. Kerry.

Coming out of Iowa, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who had parlayed an optimistic posture into second place in an otherwise negative campaign, seemed to be emerging as Mr. Kerry's chief roadblock.

But Mr. Edwards, as a fresh face from the South, found himself in New Hampshire competing with a candidate with a similar image, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark. The general had skipped the Iowa caucuses and thus had a jump on Mr. Edwards in the Granite State.

Once again, the circumstances benefited Mr. Kerry. Mr. Clark barely edged Mr. Edwards for third place, behind Mr. Kerry and Dr. Dean, but his military background did not materially cut into Mr. Kerry's support among veterans.

Now, however, the Massachusetts Yankee must move into largely unfamiliar territory - Delaware, South Carolina, North Dakota, Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona on Tuesday and Michigan and Washington on Feb. 7. The nine contests over 10 days will tell whether the 2004 nomination race will be a sprint, a marathon, or a bit of both.

Two previous Democrats, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Al Gore in 2000, also started off winning the two opening contests for national convention delegates. Mr. Gore beat former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey in a sprint, driving him to the sidelines about a month later. But Mr. Carter had to slog through a wearying marathon to stave off a host of challengers.

This time, the bunching together of 11 early state primaries and caucuses in 20 days is both a sprint in terms of the time period and a marathon in the number of states contested and in most cases visited.

Mr. Edwards has called South Carolina, his birthplace, a "must win" state for him and will focus on it this week. Dr. Dean and Mr. Kerry, in turn, may zero in instead on delegate-rich Missouri (88) and Michigan (154). Both are strong labor states that have been converted into battlegrounds by the withdrawal of pro-labor Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt.

Mr. Kerry's record as a decorated Vietnam veteran may counter coolness in the South and West toward a liberal from Massachusetts. The next stretch on the political calendar will be a challenge to him but also an opportunity to close the sale by demonstrating national appeal.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column generally appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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