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Kerry camp pins hopes on Iowa, N.H. success

CHARITON, Iowa -- Presidential candidate John F. Kerry has sharply curtailed campaign visits to states beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, betting virtually all of his political chips on success in one short month: January.

So focused is the Kerry effort that the Massachusetts senator plans to stay in Iowa for the first two weeks of January, making only quick day trips to New Hampshire and staying out of other upcoming primary states almost entirely.

Kerry's strategy is in sharp contrast to those of his rivals, who are moving to build firm support nationally to try to secure the Democratic presidential nomination. An analysis of recent schedules and ongoing political strategies of the six leading Democratic candidates indicated Kerry is spending most of his campaign time in the two crucial states that vote first in the nominating process, while all but skipping states like South Carolina, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Michigan that hold important primaries soon after New Hampshire's Jan. 27 contest. In addition to the roughly 15 days he will spend in Iowa in January, Kerry will have spent at least nine of the final 18 days of December there as well.

Political analysts say this is an enormously high-stakes strategy for Kerry, especially since he has not generated major gains in opinion polls in Iowa or New Hampshire despite his flesh-pressing, television commercials, and new staff additions in both states.

Between last February and Nov. 9, the day Kerry fired his campaign manager and began retooling his strategy, the senator made seven trips to South Carolina, four trips to Arizona, and four trips to New Mexico -- all states with Feb. 3 primaries that Kerry has labeled as key to winning the Democratic nomination.

Since Nov. 9, Kerry has visited only one of the seven Feb. 3 primary states -- Arizona -- and only for three hours on Veterans Day. He has not returned to South Carolina since giving a speech on college tuition there Sept. 12. He plans to return to New Mexico tomorrow for a press event, a fund-raiser, and a holiday party before heading to Iowa for a four-day visit, including 24 hours straight of campaigning meant to symbolize his commitment to the state.

By contrast, rivals like retired General Wesley K. Clark of Arkansas, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, and Representative Richard A. Gephardt have been canvassing Feb. 3 states more than Kerry, while spending less time than him in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Kerry advisers say he is wagering on a "January effect" to ignite his campaign: He plans to remain in Iowa for roughly 15 days after New Year's in the run-up to the Jan. 19 caucuses, while making quick trips to New Hampshire.

He will also deploy surrogate campaigners in New Hampshire, including his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry; daughter Vanessa and stepson Chris Heinz; and his campaign chairwoman, former Granite State governor Jeanne Shaheen.

Kerry's goal, advisers say, is to score second place or better in Iowa and generate fresh momentum to ride into New Hampshire and challenge Dean, who leads Kerry there by 29 percentage points in a new poll by WMUR-TV, the ABC affiliate in Manchester, released yesterday.

"There's a slingshot effect from Iowa to New Hampshire that is very important to us," said Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager for the last month. "Past exit polls show that one-third of New Hampshire voters make up their minds the week before their primary, in those eight days after Iowa votes. That's huge for us."

Yet analysts say this January effect is notoriously unpredictable, and the 25 percent of Iowa voters who are traditionally undecided in January could easily split among the current Democratic field.

"There's the potential for a January effect, but I haven't seen any sign that Kerry is gaining in popularity here to guarantee that kind of lift," said Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. "There's also no reason to think at this point that all of those undecided voters would end up going to one candidate."

During a breakfast stop at Donna's Place in Chariton on Monday morning, Jack and Sara Palmer listened as Kerry hailed Saddam Hussein's capture, promised Medicare reforms, and pledged to earn their votes. The Palmers said afterward that Kerry was more energetic and seemed more presidential in person than on television -- yet they were not likely to choose between their favorites, Kerry and Dean, until January.

"Dean has a real-person, common-sense touch to him, but Kerry has such great experience in foreign policy," Jack Palmer said.

Bruce Reed, who worked on Al Gore and Bill Clinton's campaigns in 1988 and 1992 in Iowa and New Hampshire, and is now president of the Democratic Leadership Council, said Kerry faces as many risks as rewards with his current strategy.

"He has to pass his test first -- beating expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire -- and that's more important than extra campaigning in other states, because winning has its own reward," Reed said. "But candidates who are betting the farm on those first two states will face a real hurdle if they don't have a good game plan for the next round."

Like Kerry, the other leading Democratic candidates are honing their strategies toward the nomination. Dean, the front-runner, has already set President Bush in his sights, campaigning in populous states rich in electoral votes. Since early November, according to his campaign, Dean has visited New York seven times -- once more than New Hampshire -- and Florida three times, as well as two swings each through Texas, South Carolina, and Michigan. (Kerry has spent three days in New York, Florida, and California, and two in Pennsylvania.)

Gephardt, whose home state of Missouri neighbors Iowa, is running hard for a victory in next month's caucuses. In recent Iowa polls, he has been trading first place with Dean, while Kerry has struggled to move up from a solid third. In turn, Gephardt is spending less time in New Hampshire than Kerry, but has made two visits to South Carolina since Nov. 1.

Clark and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut are skipping the Iowa caucuses altogether. Clark made 17 visits to New Hampshire between Nov. 1 and mid-December, and also made the most visits -- nine -- during that period to the Feb. 3 states: Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Carolina.

These seven states make up a major new hurdle of primaries erected by national Democrats who wanted to accelerate the nominating process in 2004.

Senator John Edwards of North Carolina is also competing aggressively in South Carolina, where he was born, and Oklahoma, to which he has made five visits since Nov. 1, his campaign says.

Kerry, meanwhile, has made 11 visits to Iowa and 13 to New Hampshire in that time.

Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, said the Massachusetts senator will be on the ballots of 27 states as of tomorrow, yet acknowledged that both Iowa and New Hampshire are more critical to Kerry's strategy than perhaps any other candidate. As for after New Hampshire, Cahill said the campaign has "done a lot of work in the Feb. 3 states" -- even though the campaign has begun sending aides from those states and others with later primaries, as well as Washington, D.C., to Iowa and New Hampshire.

Asked where Kerry was certain to win if he failed to do so in Iowa or New Hampshire, as polls suggest, Cahill hesitated to name a state, arguing instead that even second-place showings would add to Kerry's slate of delegates needed to win the nomination.

"The undecided vote is still ahead of every candidate in all the Feb. 3 polls I've seen," Cahill said. "People are going to get knocked out of this race after Iowa and New Hampshire, and it's not going to be us."

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

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