With 1 day to go, Kerry holds on to big lead

New Hampshire polls show him with 36% of vote

Election 2004

January 26, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MANCHESTER, N.H. - Sen. John Kerry, who has solidified his position as the front-runner going into tomorrow's presidential primary here, began a final push to energize supporters and win over crucial wavering voters as he sought to set the stage for a repeat performance of his stunning win last week in Iowa.

Campaigning door to door in Merrimack yesterday and at a rally in Nashua with fellow Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Kerry fought not to appear too confident going into the first-in-the-nation primary, imploring supporters to stay enthusiastic and to work hard to hand him a victory.

"I'm not here just to count down the hours until Tuesday. I'm here to say we have to fight, we have to go out and find every vote we can, we have to work to earn the right to represent the Democratic Party," Kerry said at a packed gymnasium at Nashua Senior High School. "I am here to mark the beginning of the end of the Bush presidency."

But the rally had the air of an anointment as Kennedy and former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen sang Kerry's praises before the cheering crowd.

"There is no Democrat, there's no one in America better prepared to take that office," said Kennedy, who invoked the memory of his brother John F. Kennedy by noting that the former president announced his candidacy in the same town exactly 44 years before.

Kerry and his campaign aides have been working hard to dampen expectations that he will win another decisive victory here. But that has been difficult to do in recent days as polls have showed Kerry surging.

A Gallup poll conducted Saturday and yesterday showed Kerry maintaining his lead over his Democratic rivals, claiming 36 percent support - 11 percentage points more than former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, his closest rival.

The poll showed a virtual dead heat for third place, with retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark at 13 percent and Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut tied with 10 percent. The survey's margin of error was 3 percent.

According to the survey, support for Edwards - whose second-place finish in Iowa has fueled something of an unlikely revival for the southerner in this New England state - increased slightly after flattening over the previous few days.

Dean recovering

Dean has somewhat recovered from a slump he suffered because of his now-infamous speech after the Iowa caucuses, in which he let out a shriek that some derided as unpresidential. After a few days of losing ground in tracking polls, Dean is at 25 percent, according to the Gallup survey - back at his pre-Iowa caucus level of support. Still, he lags far behind where he was a few weeks ago, when he enjoyed a double-digit lead in the race.

Yesterday, Dean sought to make inroads with female voters - a group with which he has lost ground in recent weeks, according to polls - by appearing in Manchester at a Women for Dean event and at the Every Woman Counts forum at Dartmouth College in Hanover. Joining him on the campaign trail yesterday were his mother, Andree Dean, and his wife, Judith Steinberg Dean.

Dean's campaign said it was distributing 50,000 copies of an interview the couple conducted last week with ABC's Diane Sawyer, apparently hoping to replace the frequently broadcast footage of his Iowa speech with a more appealing television moment.

The reaction to what is being referred to as Dean's "I Have A Scream" speech seemed to be fading; some voters at his events over the weekend either dismissed the incident or said it confirmed why they liked the feisty candidate.

Dean has been talking up his comeback and pleading with New Hampshire residents to live up to their reputations as voters who defy conventional wisdom. "We are now within striking distance of winning," Dean said yesterday in Manchester.

Facing criticism by Dean on his record on military involvement in Iraq, Kerry continued to resist the urge to strike back at the former governor. Appearing on CBS' Face the Nation, Kerry defended his positions on Iraq - he opposed the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and supported the current operation there - and criticized Dean's campaign tactics.

"It's very interesting. Two days ago, Howard Dean said that he was going to stop running a negative campaign and focus on his agenda," Kerry said. Since then, "he's attacked every other candidate, including me."

As his lead has grown here, Kerry has been careful to avoid too much public sniping against his rivals, perhaps taking a lesson from Iowa, where bitter feuding between Dean and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri is thought to have played a role in damaging both men on caucus night.

Some stumbles

Instead, Kerry has focused his most passionate rhetoric against President Bush, hoping to convince voters that he is the Democrat best positioned to compete with him on domestic issues and national security.

But Kerry struggled yesterday to defend himself against charges that he is too liberal to beat Bush. Pressed on Fox News Sunday to explain his stance on gay marriage, Kerry stumbled several times to justify his vote against a 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

"I don't support marriage among gays. I've said that many times. That was not my position," Kerry said. "But I also don't support the United States Senate being used for gay bashing - for, sort of, discriminatory efforts to try to drive wedges between the American people."

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