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Candidates jockey for momentum

Hopefuls in final push for Iowa votes

By Anne E. Kornblut
Globe Staff / January 18, 2004

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DES MOINES -- Senator John F. Kerry reveled in his building momentum here yesterday amid fresh indications that Howard Dean has substantially slipped -- setting the stage for the closest Iowa nominating contest in nearly three decades.

Kerry took first place, at 26 percent, in a Des Moines Register poll published today, followed by Senator John Edwards in second place, at 23 percent. The two former poll leaders dropped into third and fourth place, with Dean at 20 percent and Representative Richard A. Gephardt at 18.

The results were within the margin of error, which was 4 percentage points. Advisers to all four campaigns insisted that polling here is unreliable, because caucuses depend so heavily on organizational success, which cannot be measured until the votes are tallied. But the numbers reflected a broader pattern over the last week, as Edwards and Kerry surged and Dean and Gephardt seemed to flag in tracking polls.

"Are you ready to surge through Saturday and into Sunday and Monday night?" Kerry told a crowd of supporters in Dubuque yesterday.

The Dean campaign, however, said it had secured enough promises from tens of thousands of caucusgoers to guarantee victory -- a far better predictor than polls, Dean said.

"Polls at this point are really meaningless. Today we're up; yesterday we were down," Dean said yesterday, in response to earlier Zogby polls that also showed Kerry ahead. Gephardt also dismissed the figures as "ridiculous."

The poll was released at the end of a frenetic campaign day for the candidates, who crisscrossed the state, hoping to gain a last-minute edge.

Gephardt, Dean, Kerry, and Edwards each appeared at multiple events while the race dominated the local news and drew hundreds of reporters and supporters from out of state. In the final moments, the campaigns ran only positive ads on television, hoping to appeal to undecided voters who are generally turned off by negative campaign ads.

Still, accusations of negative tactics flew between the campaigns. A Dean supporter reported receiving a negative phone call about her candidate from a Kerry volunteer, which the Kerry campaign described as an isolated incident. Kerry, meanwhile, accused his rivals of a "smear effort" after another campaign unearthed an old story in which he suggested getting rid of the Department of Agriculture.

Although not a single vote has yet been cast, advisers to Kerry and Edwards said the last-minute turnabout in the polls would help boost their standing not only in Iowa but also in the states to follow. Kerry has trailed both Dean and retired general Wesley K. Clark in New Hampshire, banking on a victory in Iowa to catapult him to the top in the Granite State on Jan. 27.

The Edwards breakthrough was the most pronounced: The senator from North Carolina saw only single-digit poll numbers until the last two weeks, and just a week ago his best hope seemed to be coming in fourth place, or perhaps third. The shift was perhaps most ominous for Gephardt, who must win the state if he hopes to continue on to further contests.

Even before the Register poll, Kerry seemed to have caught a new wave of momentum by all the unscientific standards used to measure it. His crowds increased, he took the lead in daily tracking polls last week, and perhaps most importantly, he began to exceed expectations that were lowered after he straggled behind for months.

By the same measure, Dean appeared to be losing steam. But Dean advisers said that in addition to having a superior on-the-ground operation, they would benefit from the perceived decline, because it lowers expectations Dean will win by a wide margin here, or at all, thus giving him a boost if he pulls off a victory.

Winning the Iowa caucuses alone has not historically given candidates enough juice to win, however. Gephardt, for example, won here in 1988 but ran out of money soon after.

Coming in second or third has been just as significant in adding momentum. Clinton came in third here and second in New Hampshire in 1992, but that was enough for him declare himself the "comeback kid," because he had exceeded expectations.

Still, the outcome on tomorrow night will set off a more serious round of stories and debates about who is up or down, which is expected in turn to influence voters in New Hampshire a week later, and then in the states that follow on Feb. 3.

A new Boston Globe/WBZ-TV two-day tracking poll found Dean's numbers continuing to slip in New Hampshire. According to the survey conducted by KRC Communications Research, 30 percent of respondents said they would vote for Dean, 25 percent for Clark, and 13 percent for Kerry.

Perhaps more significantly, 8 percent of 400 probable Democratic voters polled Friday and yesterday who said they had changed their mind about whom to support in the past two weeks had switched away from Dean.

The fluidity of the race was apparent later yesterday, as rumors swirled that Dean aides have locked down 50,000 caucusgoers, more than enough to win, and the former Vermont governor seemed less determined to lower expectations than he had before.

"We expect to do well. I believe we can win and I believe we will win, based on the efforts that are going on to get people out," Dean said. "We're working as hard as we possibly can to win the whole thing."

Edwards did not predict victory outright. "It just seems like we're doing pretty well at the right time," he said. But in rousing remarks to a crowd in Des Moines, Edwards sounded exceptionally confident. "We've been organizing for this all year, and on Monday we're going to shock the world," he said.

Gephardt, who arguably most needs an Iowa triumph, said that his organizational advantage will put him over the top and catapult him in the states to follow. "We're in the stretch run. This is when it really counts," Gephardt said.

Dean, under scrutiny for signs that his campaign is adrift, accused reporters of reading too much into certain changes recently -- his choice of sweater over the more formal shirt-sleeves and tie, and fluctuations in the length and content of his stump speech in the final days of the caucus contest.

"My speeches will be whatever pops into my head at the time. I know what the message is, and the message is get out and vote at 6:30 [p.m.] on Monday. That's what the core message is, and stand up to special interests and corporations in Washington, but after that, I basically say what I want to say," he said.

Following his visit yesterday to Sioux City, Dean decamped to Georgia, to meet and attend church with former president Jimmy Carter this morning in Plains. Dean refused to speculate about what impact the visit might have on caucusgoers, though it will unite him with an icon of the caucus system.

Momentum can do only so much in carrying candidates who do not have a strong organization in place to turn out caucusgoers statewide. Gephardt's campaign manager, Steve Murphy, who has worked in Iowa campaigns since 1980, said yesterday that the race is

the closest in the history of the caucuses.

Joining Gephardt at a rally of neighborhood canvassers outside an auto workers' union local office in Cedar Rapids, Ron Hunt, president of the Teamsters local, said a large percentage of his more than 4,000 members have pledged to caucus for Gephardt.

James P. Hoffa, general president of the Teamsters international, has joined the effort in Iowa, meeting with members on the job and at union halls, Hunt said. Asked about polls showing Gephardt stalled, Hunt replied: "I ain't puttin' a lot of faith in them polls."