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Kerry camp lowers N.H. expectations

Behind in polls, senator now seeks spot in `top two'

Facing harsh political terrain in New Hampshire, Senator John F. Kerry and his presidential campaign advisers have begun bracing for the possibility of a loss in the state's Jan. 27 primary, which the campaign had previously labeled a "must win" to sustain his presidential bid.

With two recent New Hampshire polls suggesting that Kerry is 30 percentage points behind Democratic rival Howard Dean, Kerry and his advisers are moving to lower expectations of his primary performance there. The campaign issued a memo Saturday night saying for the first time that Kerry is competing for "the top two" spots in the primary, not just for an all-out victory.

"Clearly, Senator Kerry is trailing in New Hampshire, by any reasonable measure, but there are a lot of people who went on to be president who didn't win New Hampshire," campaign spokesman Michael Meehan said yesterday. "We have definite plans to win states after New Hampshire."

In another signal that the campaign was fighting for traction, Kerry has started using unusually fierce language about President Bush -- including a swear word that drew fire from the White House yesterday -- in hopes of winning greater media attention nationwide, which might spark voter interest in states with primaries after New Hampshire.

Kerry also told a New Hampshire newspaper editorial board Friday that Bush had "lied" about his reasons for going to war in Iraq, a word Kerry has been reluctant to use publicly for months. Yesterday he said he did not plan to use the word again. Earlier Friday, Kerry said Bush and his allies could not attack Kerry's Iraq critique as unpatriotic, saying of his own Vietnam war record, "I left some blood on a battlefield that President Bush never left anywhere."

And in a new Rolling Stone magazine story, Kerry said of Bush's performance as commander in chief of the Iraq conflict and occupation: "Did I expect George Bush to [expletive] it up as badly as he did? I don't think anybody did."

Kerry's remark was condemned yesterday by White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., a Massachusetts native, who called on Kerry to apologize for a comment that was "beneath" the senator.

"I've known John Kerry for a long time, and I'm very disappointed that he would use that kind of language," Card said on CNN's "Late Edition" news program. "I'm hoping that he's apologizing, at least to himself."

Kerry, who swears occasionally in private conversation, said yesterday morning that he had not heard about Card's statements and declined to comment. The Kerry campaign shot back yesterday, providing the Globe with three examples of profanity that Bush has used since 1999, including the four-letter word Kerry himself used.

As the nominating contests for Democrats begin in six weeks, with the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, Kerry seeks to energize and focus his campaign to gain momentum nationally, in part to mitigate any damage on his campaign that a New Hampshire loss would have. Yesterday, he met with veterans in San Diego to mark Pearl Harbor Day and criticized Bush as not providing the resources to keep soldiers safe in Iraq. Kerry pledged to introduce legislation tomorrow to reimburse Americans who use their own money to buy body armor for relatives serving in Iraq.

In New Hampshire, where the nine Democratic challengers are to participate in a forum tomorrow night, Kerry is holding out hope that he can follow in the footsteps of John McCain's insurgent presidential bid in 1999-2000. Having trailed Bush for much of the year in New Hampshire, McCain beat him by about 18 percentage points. (Kerry campaign officials have recently cited conflicting polls to show how much ground McCain made up against Bush in late 1999, but it is clear that McCain rallied from behind.)

Through much of 2003, Kerry's advisers -- as well as many political analysts and some Democratic Party leaders -- said that if the senator didn't win New Hampshire, it would be hard to see him coming in first in South Carolina or Arizona, where he also hopes to perform well in primaries.

Now, his top advisers -- many of them hired in the last month and reluctant to label anything "must win" -- are trying to make two points clear: that New Hampshire primary voters historically choose a candidate after New Year's Day and that even if Kerry doesn't win Jan. 27, he is also competing in primaries and caucuses in 17 other states.

"Kerry and his team have read the polls and are now giving themselves as much wiggle room as possible in New Hampshire to live and fight another day," said Dean Spiliotes, a specialist on presidential primaries at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "The problem is, I don't see him showing much strength in any other states beside New Hampshire and Iowa. So if he doesn't win either of those, where does he win?"

Asked where Kerry could begin winning primaries, if not in New Hampshire, Meehan said that none of the nine Democrats could bank on any state for victory and that Kerry planned to campaign hard in the Feb. 3 primaries in South Carolina, Arizona, New Mexico, and in other states.

"Howard Dean was recently at 11 percent in a South Carolina poll, with the margin of error being 5 percent -- which means he could be as low as 6 percent," Meehan said. "Meanwhile, we're at 4 percent, and with the margin of error we could be at 9 percent."

Three other candidates -- Senator John Edwards, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and former Army General Wesley K. Clark -- have been in the lead in South Carolina recently, polls suggest.

Kerry has hardly written off a New Hampshire victory, insisting Friday that he "intended to win" the primary. He is widely seen as having built-in advantages in the Granite State, chiefly his native-son roots in neighboring Massachusetts and his familiarity, after 19 years in the US Senate, to many voters who have lived or worked in Massachusetts or have seen media reports about Kerry over the years.

Dean, as a former governor of Vermont, shares many of these same advantages. Political analysts have long seen New Hampshire as a Dean-Kerry race. One recent poll suggested that Clark is coming up strong behind Kerry in the state, trailing him by 2 percentage points, within the margin of error.

Two Kerry advisers said yesterday that a second-place finish in New Hampshire was acceptable in part because of Democratic Party rules: Candidates who receive at least 15 percent of the vote in a primary or caucus will receive a share of the delegates who will go on to nominate the Democrats' presidential candidate at the party convention in Boston in late July.

"If we can catch Howard Dean before it's all over in new Hampshire, great, but a silver medal actually counts in a presidential primary," said Meehan, one of the advisers.

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com.

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