Democrats buckle up for campaign's make-or-break time

With 27 states voting by March 2, candidates will be pressed for time

Election 2004

January 26, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MANCHESTER, N.H. - Gentlemen, start your jet engines. It's tarmac time.

The presidential contenders will be racing for their campaign planes tomorrow night, before all the votes are tallied in New Hampshire's primary. They'll be flying off into a new, very different phase of the 2004 contest - the largest and most concentrated series of early primaries and caucuses in the history of presidential politics.

"It's a marathon," said Steve McMahon, a top strategist in Howard Dean's campaign. "We're going to run hard. It's going to be a long race."

No longer free to spend days on end courting voters in a single state, the candidates will spend much of the next five weeks making "flyarounds." The goal: to touch as many airport tarmacs - and media markets - in as many states as possible.

With 27 states, including Maryland, holding primaries or caucuses by March 2, campaign officials are being forced to decide make-or-break questions about where to spend their candidate's time and money.

That means making judgments about which states offer the best opportunity for winning delegates - or in the case of some trailing candidates, simply keeping their campaign alive.

Reaching masses of voters, through paid advertising or news coverage, now replaces the one-on-one retail campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Not surprisingly, campaign officials insist their organizations are up to the job.

Eli Segal, campaign chairman for retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, says he is "comfortable that we have the resources and the candidate to run a national campaign."

But how long and how far Clark can go will depend, in part, on how high he finishes in New Hampshire, the first state in which he is competing.

Tomorrow night's losers can expect to see their funding sources dry up quickly, while the winner will be able to replenish his operations with the campaign cash that flows to front-runners.

When it comes to sizing up the shape of the next round of primaries and caucuses, "I think we'll know a lot more after" tomorrow, said Nick Baldick, campaign manager for John Edwards. The senator from North Carolina ran second in Iowa but has yet to see that translate into a big bounce in New Hampshire polls.

If, as expected, Sen. John Kerry adds a primary victory to his Iowa caucus triumph, he'll become the front-runner for the nomination. But he'll also face pressure to prove the breadth of his appeal, by competing everywhere in the country.

Kerry's focus on winning Iowa forced him to direct money and manpower away from other early states in recent months. When he won the caucuses one week ago, his cash-short campaign was not airing ads in any of the seven states that vote one week from tomorrow.

"I'm going to be campaigning vigorously in all of those states," Kerry told Fox TV yesterday. "I'm not writing off anywhere."

His rivals would be delighted to have Kerry's problem - putting fresh campaign resources into all the Feb. 3 states, which sprawl from Delaware and South Carolina on the East Coast to New Mexico and Arizona in the Southwest and North Dakota on the Canadian border. (Oklahoma and Missouri are the other two.)

For the candidates who finish far back in New Hampshire, the challenge will simply be finding a state that can help keep their campaigns alive.

Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic national chairman, has suggested that any contender without a victory after next Tuesday should quit the race.

"On the morning of Feb. 4, if you haven't won one of the first nine states, you've got to look at your candidacy," said McAuliffe. The party leader helped engineer the 2004 primary calendar, which was designed to pick a nominee quickly and allow Democrats to unite early against President Bush.

However, McMahon, the Dean adviser, says their campaign has the resources to keep going, whether or not the Vermonter has won a state by next Tuesday.

"It's not all about February 3rd," he said. "We've got boots on the ground in 50 states."

Based on interviews with campaign officials, here is a thumbnail look in the first round of post-New Hampshire contests, which take place one week from tomorrow:

Delaware: Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman has targeted the First State, which has the second-smallest number of delegates, on Feb. 3. He has run television ads in Salisbury, which reaches viewers in Delaware, and radio spots. None of the other campaigns has made a big push, but momentum could give Kerry a lift.

South Carolina: Four years ago, this was a crucial battle in the Republican presidential contest, and it shapes up as the most important test Feb. 3. Sen. John Edwards, from neighboring North Carolina, is a Palmetto State native. He has said he must win here in order to keep his candidacy alive.

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