Four Democrats in virtual dead heat for victory in Iowa

Caucuses tomorrow night to provide first big prize of presidential campaign

Election 2004

January 18, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DES MOINES, Iowa - The leading Democratic candidates raced across Iowa yesterday, delivering last-minute pitches and revving up supporters as a new poll indicated the potential for a close finish in tomorrow night's presidential caucuses.

Voter surveys have consistently shown four contenders in a virtual dead heat for first place over the past week.

A new poll, being published in today's Des Moines Register, showed Sen. John Kerry at 26 percent, Sen. John Edwards at 23 percent, former Gov. Howard Dean at 20 percent and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt at 18 percent. The poll, conducted Tuesday through Friday, has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Dean, the national Democratic front-runner, is relying on thousands of volunteers, many of them out-of-staters wearing bright orange ski caps, to pull him over the finish line here. The former Vermont governor planned to interrupt his five-day bus tour of Iowa for a stop today in Plains, Ga., where he is expected to receive former President Jimmy Carter's tacit endorsement.

Dean's slide in the Iowa polls and the rise of Kerry and Edwards have been attracting the most attention from Democratic politicians and an army of news media representatives who are in the state for the first real test of the 2004 race.

Edwards, whose late-developing candidacy has been attracting large and enthusiastic crowds, is crediting his optimistic message for the apparent surge. Campaign officials acknowledge, though, that his organization might have trouble converting the new enthusiasm into votes by tomorrow evening.

Edwards has been winning the support of Democrats who say they have been turned off by other candidates' negative tactics. With their numbers dropping in the polls, Dean and Gephardt pulled their attack ads off television this weekend and attempted to draw undecided voters by shifting to more positive appeals.

"We don't believe in tearing people apart. We believe in bringing them together," Edwards shouted at a morning rally for volunteers at his state headquarters in Des Moines.

The North Carolina senator, whose candidacy was languishing here and in other states, made a decision last fall to "go positive" to set himself apart from his rivals.

He also intensified his Iowa effort, hoping to capitalize on his small-town roots by concentrating on rural portions of the state.

Edwards has also started gaining in New Hampshire, where he has said he must finish at least in third place Jan. 27 to have a chance in the next round of primaries Feb. 3.

Before heading off with his family for another day of campaigning aboard his customized bus, Edwards professed surprise at the large crowds that are greeting him as his Iowa campaign comes to a close.

"To be perfectly honest, what I've seen in the last two weeks, I've never seen in my life," he said.

Kerry on defensive

Kerry, whose poll numbers in New Hampshire have also started to rebound as his prospects have brightened here, found himself on the defensive yesterday.

The Massachusetts senator was forced to respond to questions about his farming views after Dean and Gephardt circulated comments he made eight years ago. Kerry, in a 1996 newspaper interview, had called for reforming farm subsidies and either slashing the size of the Agriculture Department or eliminating it.

Though farming no longer dominates Iowa's economy, there are about 90,000 farms in the state, and the flap had Kerry on the defensive as he made his final caucus push.

Kerry dismissed the criticism as a "smear effort" designed to slow his momentum. His comments about getting "rid of" the Agriculture Department, he said, were in line with his long-standing desire to direct federal subsidies away from corporate farming and direct them to smaller family farms.

At a rally in Clinton, Kerry said that as his campaign gains in the polls, supporters should prepare for rivals to practice "the politics of fear."

The last Massachusetts politician to run for president, Michael Dukakis, also encountered difficulty with farm issues in Iowa. He was ridiculed after suggesting that Iowa farmers grow Belgian endive instead of corn and soybeans.

Dukakis, a third-place finisher in Iowa, went on to win the Democratic nomination in 1988. Gephardt, the first-place finisher in that year's caucuses, is fighting to extend his long career in politics by winning Iowa again this year.

The 27-year House veteran is giving up his congressional seat as he makes his second White House bid. But his presidential dreams will likely die on the frozen prairie of the Hawkeye State unless he manages a victory tomorrow night.

At a campaign rally in Davenport, the congressman from St. Louis pointed to the contest's closeness as he urged supporters to turn out at the 1,993 precinct meetings around the state.

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