Changed stakes in N.H.

January 27, 2004|By Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- After a whirlwind week of campaigning by the reduced field of seven Democratic candidates, these are the principal questions to be answered in today's first-in-the-nation presidential primary in New Hampshire:

If, as the polls now suggest, Iowa caucus winner Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts repeats here, who will emerge as his prime challenger?

Can former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean bounce back after finishing a weak third in Iowa? Or will he continue to fade in the wake of doubts raised about his temperament, fueled by that bizarre caucus-night pep talk to his shaken campaign workers?

Will retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a noncombatant in Iowa, move into the top tier of candidates at the expense of Dr. Dean by siphoning off a significant share of Dr. Dean's anti-war political base with his own outspoken criticism of the Iraq war?

Will the high-road, positive campaign strategy of Iowa runner-up Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina be able to maintain his momentum after a short primary here that has lacked the negativity of the Iowa caucuses?

Will Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, another Iowa noncombatant, who has been stalled in single figures in the New Hampshire polls, run strongly enough to warrant continuing as a credible candidate?

Finally, where will the surviving candidates compete a week later in the next round of seven presidential tests -- in Delaware, South Carolina, North Dakota, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico?

Even before Dr. Dean's implosion in Iowa took the luster off his formidable Internet fund raising and organization-building, his earlier wide lead in the New Hampshire polls had been eroding. Mr. Clark's decision to skip Iowa and concentrate on the Granite State appeared to be working; he passed Mr. Kerry and was closing the gap between himself and Dr. Dean.

But Vietnam war hero Kerry's victory in Iowa has challenged Mr. Clark's principal credential as the Democrat best qualified to beat President Bush on national security issues. Over the weekend, both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Clark made intensive pitches for veterans' votes.

At a large rally in Manchester, former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, a decorated Vietnam vet and multiple amputee, and World War II vet Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina lauded Mr. Kerry's combat heroics. Their remarks were underscored by another appearance of the Army officer who credits Mr. Kerry with saving his life by fishing him out of a Vietnamese river under heavy enemy fire.

Mr. Clark, at a similar rally in Portsmouth, peddled not only his own decorated combat experience in Vietnam but also his high-level military leadership, contrasting his rank as a general with Mr. Kerry's as a Navy lieutenant. In a state with an estimated 60,000 or more veterans registered to vote, they constitute a critical constituency.

A somewhat chastised and more subdued Dr. Dean, meanwhile, was unleashing on New Hampshire doorsteps his gritty army of mostly young first-time voters in the hope that their enthusiastic pitch for him will pay much greater dividends today than they did in Iowa.

Over the last weekend of the primary, impressively large crowds turned out not only for Mr. Kerry, Mr. Clark and Dr. Dean but also for Mr. Edwards, suggesting that last-hour campaigning today for undecided voters may determine the final order of finish. But all four, as well as Mr. Lieberman, are expected to persevere no matter how they finish here.

Dr. Dean's manager, Joe Trippi, continues to say his candidate is running a 50-state campaign, with staff in place and TV ads being aired in South Carolina and the six other states holding contests a week from today. But he has acknowledged that where the other candidates go after New Hampshire will be a major factor in which states Dr. Dean will run most energetically.

Earlier speculation that the primary election period would be brief, based on expectations that Dr. Dean's impressive Internet fund raising and grass-roots growth would be swiftly decisive, was shattered by Dr. Dean's Iowa meltdown.

The prospect now is for a more extended fight through and possibly beyond this year's Super Tuesday on Mar. 2, when Democratic voters in 13 states, including California, New York and Ohio -- and Maryland -- vote their presidential preferences.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column usually appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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