Kerry favored as N.H. goes to cast ballots

Primary contest among Democrats for third place

Election 2004

January 27, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - Sen. John Kerry of neighboring Massachusetts is favored to win the opening primary of the 2004 presidential contest today in New Hampshire and establish himself as the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

Warning against overconfidence but sounding upbeat, the candidate said today's vote would "mark the beginning of the end of the Bush presidency. That's what this is about."

A subdued Howard Dean, struggling to overcome a weak finish in Iowa's caucuses, is running second in the latest statewide polls. The former governor from Vermont had led by wide margins in this state for months, and a poor primary showing could make it difficult for his campaign to recover.

Three candidates were in a tight contest for third place: Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.

With seven states holding presidential tests one week from today, candidates who finish far back in New Hampshire could effectively be eliminated from contention. But all the Democratic candidates have said they intend to continue campaigning at least until next Tuesday.

The state's top election official has predicted a record primary turnout. A winter storm was forecast to reach New Hampshire late in the evening and will likely have little effect on the results.

Kerry, the leader by double digits in most opinion polls, crossed the state's frozen landscape by bus and helicopter in a final burst of campaign activity.

At an early-morning stop in the coastal town of Portsmouth, he already seemed to have the next round of primaries on his mind when an undecided voter asked about those who say he's even more liberal than Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who has campaigned here for him.

"If the worst thing they can say about me is that I'm, quote, a liberal, or something, let's go," Kerry told a crowd of about 150 supporters, "Bring it on. I'll take that anywhere in the country."

Kerry ticked off a list of his positions, including "decent schools for people in the South," balanced budgets and more police on the streets.

"The South is not a foreign country, ladies and gentlemen, and we have to stand up and stop worrying about" name-calling from the Republicans, he said. "If all they want to do in this campaign is throw labels around, they've got a problem."

Polling indicated Kerry is regarded by likely primary voters as the Democrats' best chance to defeat President Bush. National voter surveys have also registered a large uptick in support for him since he won the first voter test in Iowa.

For much of the past year, though, Kerry's campaign had languished in the Granite State, as he was forced to answer repeated questions about his vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution. But talk about the war has all but vanished from Kerry's campaign, and voters seldom bring up the issue at his events.

Kerry's revival and Dean's slide have transformed the political climate here. If Kerry wins convincingly - some late polling put him ahead by up to 20 percentage points, though one of nine surveys done over the weekend showed just a 3-percent edge - he would be the undisputed front-runner heading into a five-week blitz of contests in more than two dozen states, including Maryland.

No Democratic candidate has lost the nomination after winning competitive contests in both Iowa and New Hampshire - a feat accomplished just twice, by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and former Vice President Al Gore in 2000.

Dean is counting on support he built last year to earn him at least a close second today. But his critics say that if Dean can't win New Hampshire - his best state - he may not be able to win anywhere.

With polls indicating that his slide bottomed out late last week, Dean has predicted that a late surge would carry him to victory. But he struck a more cautious stance during a mid-day rally in Manchester.

Appearing with his wife, Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean, and West Wing star Martin Sheen at a downtown theater, Dean was asked by a supporter about his choice of a running mate.

"Since I haven't won a primary yet, I thought I'd put that off for a while," Dean responded. "Assuming, with your help, we get a lot farther down the road, starting tomorrow ... that discussion is for another time, after we have proved that we can win the nomination."

Dean has said he intends to compete in most of the Feb. 3 primary states, regardless of where he finishes here. Still smarting from coverage of his campaign stumbles, he said he'd been hurt by six to eight weeks of efforts by the news media to "take down" his candidacy.

"They're an entertainment business, as much as a news media," he said on CNN. "I think you report the news, you create the news and that's what you guys do."

Dean acknowledged that news organizations didn't make up his much ridiculed caucus-night speech. "But you chose to play it 673 times in one week," he said.

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