Kerry is making his stand in Iowa

Good standing in caucus may re-energize senator's fading bid for president

January 09, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

AMES, Iowa - Not long ago, Sara Helland was thinking about backing Howard Dean in the Iowa caucuses, the first real test for the 2004 presidential contenders.

But after a series of contentious statements by Dean, she decided that the former governor "is a little crazy. He says things without thinking, and that concerns me. We already have a president who does that." So the 28-year-old agricultural research scientist from Slater, Iowa, switched her allegiance to Sen. John Kerry.

Second thoughts about Dean are giving Kerry a second chance in Iowa - and perhaps one last shot to reinvigorate his flagging presidential drive.

The Massachusetts senator, who began the Democratic contest as the favorite and then fell far back, says his campaign "is moving" now, as voters take a fresh look at him and make their final choices. According to officials of several campaigns, an unusually large proportion of Iowa voters, perhaps one in four, are either undecided or subject to change their mind, with caucus night just over a week away.

"People are really listening now," says Kerry, who is gambling everything on a strong showing here. "I like the feeling."

Gordon Fischer, the Iowa Democratic chairman, who is neutral in the 2004 contest, gives Kerry a decent chance of finishing second in the Jan. 19 caucuses. That would be a major surprise, since Iowa has been viewed for months as strictly a two-man race between Dean, the former governor of Vermont, and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

It would also be a remarkable turnaround for the 60-year-old senator, who has been angling toward the White House ever since he returned from Vietnam as a leader of anti-war veterans more than 30 years ago.

A strong second-place in Iowa would give Kerry a badly needed boost heading into the New Hampshire primary eight days later. Polls there show retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who is skipping Iowa, moving ahead of Kerry into the runner-up slot behind Dean.

In Iowa, the latest survey of likely caucus-goers, released last night by KCCI-TV in Des Moines, put Dean in first place, with 29 percent. Gephardt was next, at 25 percent, followed by Kerry, with 18 percent. Trailing were Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, at 8 percent; Clark, 3 percent; Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, 2 percent; and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who is skipping the caucuses, also at 2 percent.

About a month ago, internal polling for Dean's campaign detected a brief Kerry surge in Iowa, around the time that Dean's penchant for making impolitic remarks was drawing more attention from his rivals and the press. That bump, which vaulted Kerry ahead of Gephardt for a time, quickly subsided.

A Dean alternative

Now, Kerry is intensifying his Iowa effort in hopes of making it reappear, and Democratic voters seem to be responding.

Nancy Harvey, 50, a life insurance underwriter from a Des Moines suburb, was leaning toward Dean until she learned about his conservative record on gun control. Dean enjoyed the backing of the National Rifle Association as governor of Vermont and has said that he would let the states make most decisions about tougher gun laws.

It "turned me off," said Harvey, a newcomer to the caucus process despite having lived in Iowa since the 1980s. She is backing Kerry because she thinks he has the best chance of winning in November. "It's really important to me that we get Bush out," she said. "He scares me."

As he travels the state in a custom bus, Kerry seems to have relaxed a bit as a candidate, in the way that former front-runners often do once their campaigns go flat and there's nothing left to lose. He launched his last-ditch try here about six weeks ago, redirecting money and campaign aides from other states and devoting more of his own time - and money - to Iowa.

With contributions drying up, Kerry has had to dig deeply into his financial resources. He has lent more than $6 million to his campaign by borrowing on his half of the Boston mansion he co-owns with his wealthy wife, Teresa, the widow of ketchup heir Sen. John Heinz.

His decision to forgo federal campaign subsidies has freed him to spend unlimited amounts in Iowa, an important advantage that only Dean shares. Kerry has intensified his TV ad buy and boosted spending on mailings to voters and for paid phone banks that try to identify and mobilize Democrats who aren't regular caucus-goers.

Different image

John Norris, his Iowa campaign manager, says Kerry "has sharpened his message," which now is aimed primarily at peeling away Dean and Gephardt's soft support. As his decades of prepping for a White House run reach a crucial voter test, Kerry has changed in other ways, too.

The lanky senator has clearly lost weight. "He doesn't eat," explains aide David Wade, quickly adding that Kerry is much healthier than in the months after he underwent prostate cancer surgery in Baltimore in February.

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