Democrats in `volatile' Iowa race

Polls say Kerry, Edwards now in a statistical tie with Dean and Gephardt

`Everybody's in the fight'

Dean wins Carter praise

McGovern backs Clark

Election 2004

January 19, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DES MOINES, Iowa - After months of campaigning, dozens of debates and countless polls, four Democrats remain locked in a close race as Iowans prepare to cast the first meaningful votes of the 2004 presidential contest tonight.

Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards have surged into a statistical tie with front-running former Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, according to the latest surveys of likely caucus-goers.

"These numbers are bouncing around. This is a volatile race," said Gephardt, who won Iowa in 1988 and faces elimination if he loses here tonight. "This thing is a dead heat. Everybody's in the fight."

Tonight's results are expected to give a clearer picture of the presidential campaign heading into next week's New Hampshire primary, where retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark has cut into Dean's lead. As Dean was receiving words of praise from former President Jimmy Carter yesterday, Clark got the endorsement of former Sen. George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee.

Dean's apparent advantage in Iowa has evaporated over the past two weeks as undecided voters began making up their minds. Despite the slide, Dean could still win here because of his organization's strength and the polls' tendency to understate support for insurgent candidates, according to neutral Democrats and some officials of rival camps.

But a competing theory holds that the unprecedented level of campaign spending, television advertising and round-the-clock news coverage will produce a record turnout that gives the caucuses more of the dynamic of a primary, in which late-voter mood shifts are often decisive. That could give Kerry and Edwards an edge.

Edwards is hoping to benefit from his rural roots, which have often helped presidential candidates in Iowa. The North Carolina senator, who has surged furthest in the recent polls, tried to rebut the notion that he lacks the organizational ability to convert his rising popularity into a caucus victory.

After a rally in Davenport, the first of five stops on his schedule yesterday, Edwards said he had spent the past year building an effective Iowa campaign organization "from the bottom up" and would demonstrate its strength tonight.

Kerry - who was atop the field in a poll published yesterday by the Des Moines Register that showed the race is too close to call - is rebounding in New Hampshire as news from Iowa spreads. The early favorite in the Democratic contest last year until Dean emerged, Kerry tried to dodge the front-runner label to keep expectations in check.

"Iowa voters are remarkably independent. They study this. They look. They work at it," Kerry said on ABC's This Week. "And I'm going to keep campaigning for every vote out here."

Kerry also took a slap at Dean and Edwards' lack of experience in Washington.

"This is not the time for on-the-job training or guessing about where a president might go on national security," said Kerry, who later made Iowa campaign stops with his Massachusetts colleague, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Meanwhile, Dean attended Carter's Sunday school class in Plains, Ga., before returning to Iowa, where he has been campaigning for almost two years. In a surprise, Dean's wife, Judy, whose absence from the campaign has drawn criticism, appeared with him at rallies in Davenport and Cedar Rapids.

Carter stopped just short of delivering a formal endorsement when he and Dean spoke to reporters and Dean supporters on the main street in the southern Georgia town.

Carter praised the Vermonter for his "courageous" and "outspoken" anti-war views, and described him as "my friend" and "a fellow Christian."

Dean strategists hope the warm words and the images of Carter and Dean together will help Dean in Iowa, where Carter remains a well-liked figure.

Dean has modeled his outsider candidacy on Carter's 1976 campaign, which took off after his surprise victory in Iowa.

Carter disagreed with those who question the ability of Dean, "a Yankee," to win in the South. He compared them to doubts about his prospects as a Southerner in northern states, which, he said, proved to be unfounded.

Carter also indicated that he shared a kinship with Dean, whose verbal gaffes reminded him of troubles he encountered as a first-time presidential candidate. "His outspoken nature, sometimes saying things that might have to be retracted - which I had to do as well when I ran for president - has made it very harmonious between me and him," Carter said.

As the Iowa campaign drew to a close, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, the choice of 3 percent of likely caucus-goers in the Des Moines Register poll, spent yesterday campaigning in the state.

Republicans are holding their caucuses tonight, as well, with President Bush running unopposed for renomination.

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