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A frontrunner fading in stretch

DESPITE the dizzying array of daily events, the final days of the Iowa caucus campaign are playing out around four principal themes: Claims of courage, of experience, of commitment, and of biography.


Howard Dean sees courage as his particular qualification, and this week in Iowa Dean has done what he always does when he hears his opponents hurrying near: attack them on their support for the Iraq war resolution.

In both TV ads and campaign appearances, the Vermonter is castigating John Kerry, Richard Gephardt, and John Edwards on that issue. More disingenuously, Dean is also airing an ad accusing unnamed Democrats of defending the Bush tax cuts, as though Kerry and Edwards favor retaining all of those breaks, rather than simply the parts that help the middle class.

Rallying his troops Wednesday night in Des Moines, Dean stepped up his use of the phrases "Washington Democrats," "Washington politicians," and "people who have been in Washington" as terms of derision for his main rivals. He, and not they, had dared to stand up to George W. Bush on the war and on tax cuts, Dean said, and he, rather than any of them, was therefore the best choice for voters who want a Democratic nominee brave enough to do real battle with the Republican incumbent.

But Dean's act is starting to wear thin here, and later Wednesday evening, John Kerry skillfully portrayed his two decades in Washington as an important qualification for the presidency. Paring his stump speech to its essentials, Kerry, surrounded by a packed crowd at the Des Moines Playhouse, invited undecided Democrats to put him to the test with their questions. The senator lingered long there, fielding queries and explaining his positions. Politics in the round plays to Kerry's public-policy strengths, and by the time the senator finally called it quits, his impressive performance had won him a considerable number of converts.

On Wednesday morning in Nevada, Iowa, a small town north of the capital, a static Gephardt tried a different tack, unloading on Dean. Outlining the Vermonter's past deviations from bedrock labor and liberal stands -- including Dean's former support for NAFTA and his opposition to a state assault weapons ban -- Gephardt portrayed himself as the trustworthy champion of cherished causes. By Thursday, an ad underlining the same themes had hit the airwaves.

A few hours northwest in Algona, John Edwards offered his own against-the-odds life story -- that of a working-class kid who triumphed over disdain and discouragement to become first a successful lawyer, then a US senator -- as a compelling contrast to the biography of George W. Bush.

So what can be said, based on dozens of interviews with Iowa caucus-goers, about the candidates and their themes? First, as late deciders mull their very different choices, Kerry and Edwards are the candidates winning the most closing-days consideration. Second, despite Dean's efforts to make service in Washington a disqualifying demerit, many caucus goers actually want a candidate who knows his way around the nation's capital.

Third, though his core supporters appreciate Dean's aggressive style, other voters tend to see him as too pugnacious. And that quality, along with his various miscues and flashes of temper, is cause for deep concern here in the capital of the Nice Belt. Indeed, the value Iowans put on the positive is one reason why the charismatic Edwards wins particular credit for the high-minded tone of his campaign.

Dean's genius here has been in leaving successive controversies behind in the dust of breaking news. But as he has added an upcoming visit to Jimmy Carter to the endorsement of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, which followed nods from Bill Bradley and Al Gore -- and as he has campaigned with self-important Hollywood glitterati like Martin Sheen and Rob Reiner -- Dean has undergone a subtle transformation from insurgent to establishment figure.

It's always hazardous to offer a prediction in a caucus contest, particularly since Dean, who is advertising at a desperate pace, is also credited with having a strong organization here.

Yet reading the mood five days out, the frontrunner seems to be fading as his rivals grow. Which is why, rather than aiding his efforts to wrap the nomination up early, it seems more likely that conscientious Iowans will go to their caucuses and return results that confirm the increasingly competitive nature of the Democratic nominating contest.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is

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