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Edwards aims at N.H. after Kerry shake-up

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Seeking a stronger-than-expected finish in the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary, Senator John Edwards's presidential campaign is moving to exploit the recent turmoil in rival John F. Kerry's political camp.

Edwards on Wednesday announced a "major" expansion of his political operation in the state, going from 17 to 24 paid staff, hoping to gain ground here and weaken Kerry heading into a series of primaries in February. Edwards recently finished a four-day, 25-stop bus trip across the Granite State that included six town hall meetings in a single day.

His aides, meanwhile, have touted recent polls that put Edwards in third place in New Hampshire, as well as an endorsement by a Manchester state senator whom some call the most important Democrat in the state behind former governor Jeanne Shaheen, Kerry's campaign chairwoman. Privately, too, Edwards's aides have hyped the largely negative media coverage of Kerry's decision to fire his campaign manager and of the subsequent resignations of two top Kerry deputies.

"There is no doubt the recent shake-ups in New Hampshire have created an opportunity for our campaign," said Nick Baldick, Edwards's campaign manager, who led Al Gore's presidential operation in New Hampshire in 2000. "Voters are getting to the decision-making point and they are liking John Edwards's ideas and determination."

Advisers to two other Democratic contenders say Kerry has undermined a perceived strength -- his electability against President Bush -- by shuffling a campaign operation that he once touted as a well-oiled machine that could outmatch Bush's.

"Since many voters are interested in a candidate who has their organization together to take on Bush, this is something that cuts to the heart of what Kerry has been claiming -- he has the chops to go after the president," said a New Hampshire-based adviser to a third Democratic candidate, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In New Hampshire polls, however, taken before Kerry's shake-up, the Massachusetts senator has consistently been far ahead of Edwards and all other rivals except Howard Dean.

Few Kerry advisers say they regard Edwards as a serious threat in the state, pointing out that he appears to be running low on campaign cash to purchase television advertising in January, traditionally a crucial factor.

"We don't take New Hampshire for granted and we're going to have to earn every vote we get," said Judy Reardon, Kerry's campaign chief for northern New England. "But from what I read, the Edwards campaign has spent a phenomenal amount of money on TV advertising this fall without much to show for it."

Privately, though, some Kerry advisers acknowledge that they don't know whether the campaign shake-up will stick as a negative in voters' minds. Linda Fowler, a Dartmouth College government professor and elections specialist, said it will soon become clear whether Kerry's changes make him as vulnerable as his rivals hope.

"If the problems that Kerry has had connecting with voters up here are related to his campaign organization, then this change may actually help him," Fowler said. "But if his problems come from himself, and not the campaign, then his rivals have an opportunity to chip away at his support."

Edwards has drawn encouragement from a Boston Globe poll of New Hampshire voters, in late October, that put him third behind Dean and Kerry, though barely ahead of his other rivals. His advisers compare Edwards's situation to Bill Clinton's in 1992, when a strong second-place finish in New Hampshire (behind Massachusetts native son Paul Tsongas) helped fuel Clinton's drive into later primaries and toward the nomination.

A separate WMUR New Hampshire Primary Poll released yesterday showed Edwards tied at 5 percent with Wesley K. Clark. The survey, conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, had a sampling error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Still, a wobbly Kerry finish in New Hampshire -- compounded by a Dean victory -- could weaken the Massachusetts senator's presidential fortunes and aid Edwards's strategy to position himself as the leading alternative to Dean -- the so-called stop-Dean candidate -- in the February primaries in South Carolina and in Southern, Rust Belt, and Western states.

Edwards's advisers speculate that the Kerry shake-up will damage the senator's fund-raising (at $20 million, a close second to Dean among Democrats), as donors take a wait-and-see approach to judge whether he gains new momentum. Kerry advisers say that fund-raising is on pace, and that Edwards, who is at 40 percent of his allowed spending here under federal election caps, faces a financial quandary.

Kerry never mentions Edwards in speeches -- he focuses on Bush and Dean -- and campaign aides say that the senator is not worried about his North Carolina colleague. Yet the campaign overhaul has left some Kerry staff members in Washington and Boston worried, and fearful for their jobs; it is difficult, one aide said, to feel confident that Edwards can be swept aside in the Feb. 3 primaries when the Kerry camp's new leaders are revising strategy.

Edwards's operation in New Hampshire is still fairly small; his 24 paid staff members are far outnumbered by Kerry's 65, yet Edwards has been spending more time in the state lately, completing more than 65 town hall meetings toward his goal of 100. Kerry aides acknowledge that their candidate has not been here as much.

In coming weeks, both candidates say, their visits will increase.

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

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