Still No. 1

April 23, 2003|By Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- With the war in Iraq winding down, three declared Democratic candidates and a prospective fourth trudged into New Hampshire last week. More are on hand this week to court the voters nine months before they go to the polls in the first presidential primary of 2004.

Like Mark Twain's famous statement that "reports of my death are greatly exaggerated," New Hampshire once again appears to have survived efforts to deny the state the leadoff position in the primary marathon. Only Iowa, which picks its national convention delegates by caucus, will precede it.

A threat from much more populated (and more Democratic) Michigan to hold its primary on the same day as New Hampshire's -- Jan. 27 -- has been cut off by the AFL-CIO, which has a controlling voice on the state Democratic Party's Central Committee.

A key element in the decision was the death in the New Hampshire House of Representatives of a right-to-work bill, whose passage might have encouraged organized labor to work against the Granite State primary in favor of heavily unionized Michigan.

The state party chairman here, Kathleen Sullivan, was prepared to call on Democratic candidates to boycott the Michigan primary if it were to be held Jan. 27. Now that step appears to be unnecessary, with the Michigan state committee expected to set Feb. 7 as its primary date later this month.

In any event, the New Hampshire primary is continuing to lure Democratic presidential aspirants to the state, where a poll last week by the American Research Group showed Sen. John Kerry of neighboring Massachusetts, in the state this week, running first with 24 percent of those surveyed. Another neighbor, former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, who was also here last week, was second with 19 percent.

Two other recent visitors -- former House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri (15 percent) and another New Englander, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut (13 percent) -- were the only others in double figures among 11 real or would-be candidates.

Former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, who won the New Hampshire Democratic primary in 1984 but ran into woman trouble in the 1988 race, is contemplating a comeback and also put in an appearance last week. But he was only a blip in the same poll.

Mr. Kerry, perceived as the early frontrunner even before the latest poll was out, clearly has the most to lose in New Hampshire. Thomas D. Rath, a Republican national committeeman who is regarded as highly knowledgeable about politics in both parties, says Mr. Kerry's recent remark that this country needs "a regime change" has hurt him even among Democrats. But Mr. Kerry already had strong leadership backing, and it's being speculated that former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen will endorse him.

Mr. Dean's showing, according to Ms. Sullivan, results from a strong grass-roots effort hinged to his outspoken opposition to President Bush on the Iraq war and forceful rhetoric boosting traditional Democratic policies.

Of all the candidates, Mr. Gephardt may covet the New Hampshire primary most. He could marshal a very strong head of steam by repeating his 1988 caucus victory in Iowa and then adding New Hampshire -- where he finished second in 1988 -- then his own Missouri on Feb. 3 and Michigan, where he has obvious appeal as a champion of organized labor.

Mr. Gephardt suffered severely in 1988 from a depleted campaign treasury because of heavy spending in Iowa and New Hampshire. This time, he says, he has already raised $5 million and anticipates having enough funds to see him through the critical Super Tuesday states, where he stumbled in 1988.

Mr. Gephardt is counting as well on strong support from fellow members of Congress, many of whom will go to the party's national convention in Boston as superdelegates -- party and elected officials given a free ride. Mr. Lieberman, however, has already won pledges from a modest number of them.

With three New Englanders in the race, the other six candidates might be expected to give New Hampshire a wide berth this year. But the news media spotlight on the first primary state has always made it irresistible, and is proving so again.

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

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