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Senator's message hits home

DES MOINES -- His voice strained but his smile broad, and with delighted and slightly stunned family and friends around him, Senator John F. Kerry sat back in his hotel suite at 10:30 last night and declared himself to be "comeback Kerry" -- the surprise, decisive victor of the Iowa caucuses and an emboldened "fighter" who would continue to defy expectations and win the Democratic nomination this winter.

The Massachusetts senator, who had been in third place in most Iowa opinion polls until 10 days ago, credited Iowans with giving America "a lesson in democracy" by ignoring polls and embracing Kerry's largely positive, heavily detailed message that President Bush can be beaten this November only by a Democrat who has military credentials, foreign policy expertise, and "progressive," practical plans to expand health care, create jobs, and "fight the special interests."

"I'm here to win, not for me, but for America, because I'm convinced we can do a better job," the 60-year-old Kerry said in an interview with a small group of reporters. "I'm going to take the same message to New Hampshire and the rest of the country."

With a challenging race up next in New Hampshire, where Howard Dean has been leading in recent polls and Kerry and retired General Wesley K. Clark were in a statistical tie, Kerry said, "I heard the [poll] numbers are already moving there."

Asked if he will win the primary, Kerry added: "I intend to try. I don't have to, but I intend to try. I especially don't have to now, but I intend to try."

Kerry now faces a New Hampshire candidates' forum Thursday night amid the eight-day sprint to the primary, and was loath yesterday to set new expectations for his candidacy, almost blanching whenever the word "front-runner" was ascribed to his White House bid.

"I'm just going to work state for state as hard as you saw me work here," he said, sitting in Room 1014 of the Hotel Fort Des Moines with his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, to his left and daughters Alexandra and Vanessa to his right. "I'm going to New Hampshire, [and] I've told everybody there I'm a fighter."

Faced with the strong union support behind Dean and Gephardt, Kerry drew on the advice of his closest Republican friend, Senator John McCain, a fellow Vietnam veteran, and put a high priority on organizing military veterans behind him.

Kerry also drew support from firefighters (who praised his quick show of support for them during the tragic Worcester fire of 1999), female voters, and many Iowa Democrats who said in interviews and voter surveys that they disliked the negative attacks traded between the race's two longtime front-runners, Dean and Gephardt.

As caucus results trickled in during the early evening, Kerry said he received a congratulatory phone call from Dean while placing one himself to Gephardt, a longtime friend and the 1988 winner of the Iowa caucuses, who was set to formally quit the race today.

"[Dean] was very generous and congratulated me in a wholehearted way, and I congratulated him on what I think has been a terrific campaign on his part so far," said Kerry, who was outspent by Dean on television advertising here and battled back against the former Vermont governor's landing of high-profile endorsements such as former Vice President Al Gore and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. Kerry also traded phone messages and finally spoke with Senator John Edwards of North Carolina; over the last week or so, the two men competed to offer relatively optimistic visions of America and convince voters that they -- and not Dean -- would have the best shot at beating Bush.

The Kerry campaign had an inkling of the success it would achieve in the late afternoon, when Kerry said he received a phone call from, in Kerry's words, "the magical Michael Whouley," the Dorchester native with a reputation for hard-fought wins who served as Kerry's field director in Iowa. Whouley told Kerry that early entrance polls and surveys suggested that the senator would win 40 percent of the delegates. Kerry repaired to his hotel room for a light dinner, a change of clothes, and a round of speechwriting for last night's remarks. He said he learned from Fox News that he was the likely winner, and celebrated with supporters and advisers like Senator Edward M. Kennedy, manager Mary Beth Cahill (another Dorchester native), strategist Robert Shrum, and Kerry's brother Cam.

Kerry's supporters went wild, and some said they were in shock, as the caucus returns were broadcast through the campaign's caucus-night party at the Hotel Fort Des Moines. Kennedy, who spent the past two days campaigning for Kerry in Iowa, called the junior senator's apparent victory "an extraordinary upset" and -- borrowing a favorite line of Kerry's -- said the result "marks the beginning of the end of the Bush presidency."

Kerry began the day at 4:45 a.m. with his voice so hoarse that he sent stand-ins to three get-out-the-vote rallies, but by late afternoon he hopped back on his campaign bus, the Real Deal Express, saying he wanted to see undecided Iowa caucusgoers one last time in order to "fight for every vote."

As he greeted Iowans entering Urbandale High School to vote, Kerry stuck to his polite, direct appeals for support, repeating "I need your help tonight" like a mantra.

"Thanks for the great experience," he told a clutch of women near the exit.

One young man wearing a T-shirt that read "Dean for America" reached out to pump Kerry's hand. Of the young man's vote, the senator said, "I guess I can't get yours."

"Well, once you get there, I'll support you over Bush," the young man replied.

Patrick Healy can be reached by e-mail at phealy@globe.com.

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