Over the past month, Howard Dean has carefully refashioned himself as the ordained Democratic pick for president, using key endorsements to shed his insurgent image and to create an aura of inevitability around his campaign. And in New Hampshire, at least, the approach has worked: Less than two months before the state primary, Dean holds a stronger lead than ever before, and is overwhelmingly viewed as the strongest Democrat against President Bush. Dean is ahead by 23 percentage points, with 42 percent favoring the former Vermont governor and 19 percent supporting his closest rival, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, said the survey, conducted by KRC Communications Research for The Boston Globe and WBZ-TV. The endorsement from former Vice President Al Gore apparently helped, with 20 percent of those surveyed -- including 15 percent of undecided voters -- saying they are more likely to vote for Dean as a result.
So firmly has Dean established himself that almost 60 percent of Democrats in New Hampshire now expect him to be the party's eventual nominee. Even among Kerry's supporters, more than a third, or 37 percent, see Dean as the inevitable winner of the nomination -- while none of the Dean supporters can envision Kerry in that role.
The only candidate other than Dean to have made progress over the last month is Wesley K. Clark, the retired general now locked solidly in third place in New Hampshire with 13 percentage points and widely favored as the candidate best able to fight terrorism and rebuild Iraq. But for the rest of the field, especially Kerry, who trailed Dean by 13 points in October, the poll -- conducted on Wednesday and Thursday, just after Gore's endorsement and the Democratic debate in Durham, N. H. -- offered a bleak forecast for the nation's first primary on Jan. 27. It suggests that the real opportunities for Dean's rivals will be in Iowa and other early voting states.
"The only ray of hope for Kerry is that he's still in second place," said Gerry Chervinsky, who conducted the poll of 400 likely Democratic primary voters.
Another plus for Kerry: those who do back him are committed, with 37 percent reporting they will "definitely support" him at the polls. Support for Dean is about the same, with 35 percent saying they will definitely vote for him. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Still, Dean is the clear focus now of the race, and polling well enough to provoke a conservative group to air an ad in Iowa targeting him by name. Of those surveyed, 47 percent said Dean would be best able to beat Bush, while only 15 percent chose Kerry, and 10 percent picked Clark.
"I like Dean's upfrontness, he's just very frank," said Paul Henderson, 27, a graduate student in education at the University of New Hampshire, said. Henderson, a registered Democrat, said he is also intrigued by Clark, but doesn't care for Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, and knows little else about the rest of the field. "I don't know much about Kerry, except that he's lost momentum in this area, which was unexpected for his campaign."
With a much closer race unfolding in Iowa against Gephardt, Dean has begun to face increasing attacks and scrutiny from all of his rivals, as well as the Republican National Commmittee.
Kerry aides issue a "Daily Dean Report" chronicling the front-runner's alleged flaws, and the senator himself has taken aim at Dean's perceived strength, accusing him of being misleading and inconsistent in his views. Last week, Kerry even began challenging Dean on his signature issue -- opposition to the war in Iraq -- saying that Dean had actually favored an amendment offered before the war began that would have allowed Bush to use military force. Gephardt picked up that attack, accusing Dean on Friday of being "all over the lot on this issue."
The other contenders have made similar charges, pouncing on Dean's refusal to open sealed records from his time as governor as evidence he has something to hide. Senator John Edwards of North Carolina accused Dean last week of being too "angry" to win the presidency, while Gephardt has been bashing the front-runner for flip-flopping on Medicare. And the Rev. Al Sharpton is also training his sights on Dean, last week issuing a statement demanding, "Will the real Howard Dean please stand up?"
One potentially related finding: Although Dean has been described as a "straight talker" in the mold of Senator John McCain, voters are less sure about his candor than some of his other traits, laying the groundwork for another general election struggle over which candidate is the most honest. Asked which candidate is the most truthful and honest, only about one-quarter -- 27 percent -- picked Dean, well below the proportion that intend to vote for him. Kerry was the second choice, for 15 percent of those surveyed, followed by Clark at 10 percent.
But there was little else to suggest that Dean has potential weaknesses in New Hampshire. And attacking the front-runner is risky for Kerry, potentially causing voters to think negatively of him and alienating Dean supporters who would otherwise make Kerry their second choice.
Kerry's popularity has dropped, with 53 percent saying they think of him favorably -- compared with 65 percent who felt that way in a similar poll in October. Another 20 percent now say they view Kerry unfavorably, a rise since the last poll, when 12 percent viewed him in a negative light.
Of those who do not support Kerry, the reasons ranged from preferring their own candidate (34 percent) to thinking Kerry is indecisive (14 percent) to simply not liking him as a person (18 percent) -- figures that hardly pointed the way toward a Kerry comeback.
By contrast, Dean has a 70 percent favorability rating, with just 12 percent saying they view him unfavorably.
"As sad as it is to say, the more Kerry attacks Dean, the more Clark is going to benefit," Chervinsky said. "Dean has this sort of teflon thing going on, as much as they want to hurt him."
With only 44 days to narrow that yawning gap, Kerry could hope for a January surprise to knock Dean out of the lead, but even that would not guarantee a Kerry victory. Although 27 percent of Dean's supporters would turn to Kerry as their second choice, another 43 percent would turn to either Clark, Gephardt, or Edwards.
In the race for first place, Edwards won support from 7 percent of those polled, while Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut won 5 percent, another 3 percent supported Gephardt and the rest registered at 1 percent or less.