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Democrats gird for showdown in Iowa tonight

DES MOINES -- Swept up in the closest nomination fight in recent history, Democratic candidates pulled out surprise guests to vouch for them on the final day before tonight's Iowa caucuses, while campaign strategists worked intensely behind the scenes to mobilize voters in a race that hinges on turnout.

Howard Dean introduced his wife on the campaign trail for the first time after staging an appearance with Jimmy Carter -- events that advisers hoped would grab headlines and overshadow polls that indicated Dean was trailing Senators John F. Kerry and John Edwards.

Both Dean and Representative Richard A. Gephardt insisted their extensive ground operations will guarantee that their supporters show up at the caucuses tonight despite frigid weather that moved in over the weekend. Dean pleaded in a new television ad, "Please don't stay home because this time it's too important." Exhilarated and exhausted, the candidates battled for any small advantage in a contest that has captivated the political establishment with its remarkable fluctuations over a nearly two-year span.

Rather than winnowing the field as expected, the outcome tonight could keep three or four candidates' campaigns alive through the New Hampshire primary next Tuesday, extending the process into states that vote Feb. 3 or later.

From the Starbucks in Des Moines, where young, orange-hatted Dean supporters congregated in clusters, to the nearby Renaissance Savery Hotel, which hosted a Chuck Berry concert on behalf of Gephardt, the final hours of the contest took on a giddy air as campaign workers monitored reports from their field offices that yielded no evidence of who would win.

Kerry and Edwards, meanwhile, cautiously celebrated newfound momentum.

Edwards, the most surprising candidate of the four to reach the top tier, sounded delighted by the enormous crowds that greeted him at Drake University in Des Moines yesterday afternoon.

"I wish you could see what I see," he said, grinning broadly as he looked out over hundreds of supporters during one event. Referring to the caucuses, Edwards said, "I wish I could reach out and grab you and go there right now."

Apparently taking notice of Edwards's growing popularity, Kerry criticized the North Carolinian's experience yesterday.

"I like John Edwards a lot," Kerry said at a town hall meeting on the Newton campus of Des Moines Area Community College.

"He's a capable, talented person. But I believe the nominee of our party has to be somebody who has the experience necessary to stand up to the onslaught that will come from the Republicans," Kerry added. "If they run this race on national security and you have a nominee who has been in the Senate four years, and that is the full extent of public life -- no international experience, no military experience -- you can imagine what the advertising is going to be next year."

Kerry, 60, then joked: "When I came back from Vietnam in 1969, I don't know if John Edwards was out of diapers then. No, I'm sure he was out of diapers by then."

Edwards is 50.

Kerry campaigned with his daughters, Vanessa and Alexandra, as well as Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who gave a rousing speech on behalf of the junior senator from his state. "In the final hours of this campaign, people want to know what kind of heart is in this man," Kennedy said.

In another sign of his momentum, Kerry received endorsements from two New Hampshire newspapers yesterday -- the Concord Monitor and The Telegraph of Nashua.

According to the latest two-day Globe/WBZ-TV tracking poll, conducted by KRC Communications Research, Dean remains in the lead in New Hampshire, with 30 percentage points, while retired Army General Wesley K. Clark has 23 points and Kerry has 14. That roughly mirrors figures from the day before.

The poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus five percentage points, also indicated that a significant number of undecided New Hampshire voters surveyed -- 22 percent -- said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who wins in Iowa or does better than expected there. Kerry wrapped up the day with one of his largest rallies yet, drawing more than 1,500 people to the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, where both Kerry and Kennedy predicted a strong performance by Kerry in tonight's caucuses.Although Clark is not competing in Iowa, he has become the target of attacks by other candidates now that attention is about to shift to New Hampshire. Campaigning in the Granite State yesterday, Clark received the endorsement of George McGovern, the former senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee. But back in Iowa, he was taken to task. Kerry criticized Clark as a recent arrival to the Democratic Party. Asked whether he would release his tax returns as Clark has, Kerry said, "Long before Wesley Clark was a Democrat, I released all my tax returns for 20 years." Gephardt, who must win Iowa to survive in the race, remained focused on Dean, who has cut deeply into the base of support the Missouri congressman relied on when he won the Iowa caucuses in 1988 by four points. "I just don't much like the campaign he has been running," Gephardt said on the NBC news program "Meet the Press."

But in public appearances, the candidates mostly stuck to a positive tone.

Gephardt took a self-effacing tack. "I don't need the job. I don't need the title," he said. "But America needs a leader who comes from a life experience of the people."

Dean took the unusual step of leaving Iowa -- flying to Georgia to see Carter in his hometown of Plains. But it was Dean's wife, who uses the name Judith Steinberg in her medical practice, who easily stole the spotlight for the day -- trumping rocker Joan Jett, singer Ani DiFranco, comedian Janeane Garofalo, and other celebrities who crisscrossed the state on behalf of various candidates throughout the day.

Dean's wife had never been on the campaign trail with her husband, or to the state of Iowa -- a point that focus groups had begun to pick up on, according to Democrats, raising potential questions about her support for her husband's candidacy. The campaign has long maintained that she is simply shy and deeply committed to her patients in Vermont. She flew back to Vermont almost immediately, in time to see patients scheduled for today.

Backstage at the first event, in Davenport, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa gave Dean's wife advice about how to take the stage. Wearing a blue sweater set, she giggled and smiled as her husband introduced her to members of the press corps.

When she emerged, the crowd erupted. "Thank you very much. For those of you who don't know me, I'm Judy Dean," she said, speaking in a barely audible voice and reading from notes. "I haven't been here as much as I would like. We have a son in high school, a daughter in college, and I'm a medical doctor with patients who depend on me daily."

Glen Johnson and Rick Klein of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Anne E. Kornblut can be reached at akornblut@globe.com.

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