New poll

Dean slips, Clark gains in N.H.

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Staff / January 16, 2004

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A barrage of criticism from his rivals appears to have taken a dramatic toll on Howard Dean's advantage in New Hampshire, and retired General Wesley K. Clark is benefiting from questions about whether the former Vermont governor is the best candidate to handle the war on terrorism, according to a new Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll.

Four weeks ago, Dean had opened a gulf between himself and the rest of the field in New Hampshire. But if, as the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics, a month is an eternity -- especially in the electorally volatile Granite State.

The latest poll indicates Dean still leading in New Hampshire, but the 23 percentage-point advantage he enjoyed in December has been cut to nine points. His support is down from 42 percent in a Globe/WBZ-TV poll in December to 32 percent in the latest poll, conducted this week. And the man breathing down Dean's neck is Clark. According to the survey of 400 likely Democratic primary voters, 32 percent favor Dean, 23 percent prefer Clark, and 12 percent support Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry, formerly Dean's closest rival. The gap has narrowed as other candidates have hammered away at Dean in debates and speeches over the past month.

Clark, who has not campaigned in Iowa and instead devoted himself to New Hampshire, has surged as more voters have met him and apparently decided he has the best qualifications to deal with the foreign policy issues they believe will be a factor in the general election. Clark's support is up from 13 percent in December. Kerry's has dropped from 19 percent, putting him in third place.

"You can't say this is a blowout any more the way you could a month ago," said Dante Scala, associate professor of politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. "I think we see, first and foremost, a Clark surge, apparently at the expense of John Kerry. It looks like the attacks on Dean have hurt him somewhat. For once, it gives the other candidates a stationary target to go after."

Clark has high voter approval in New Hampshire, according to the survey, which was conducted Monday through Wednesday by KRC Communications Research and has a margin of error of plus or minus five percentage points. The poll indicated that 74 percent of voters surveyed have a favorable opinion of Clark, while 11 percent view him negatively.

Dean is still popular, however, with 67 percent viewing him favorably. But the former Vermont governor's negative rating has climbed to 19 percent as the attacks on him have increased. The December survey put his negative rating at 12 percent.

Clark's support is stronger than Dean's among affluent and older voters. Unlike Dean and Kerry, who are supported about equally by men and women, Clark garners more votes from men than women. He also does better than the other Democrats with voters who call themselves conservative, and among those who supported presidential candidate Senator John S. McCain, Republican of Arizona, in 2000.

For months, Dean's rivals have been criticizing him for refusing to unseal documents from his time as governor of Vermont, for what they say are inconsistent statements on domestic issues like Medicare, and for ill-considered remarks on Iraq and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They have argued repeatedly that he will not be able to beat President Bush in November. Though other campaigns had expressed frustration that their criticisms seemed to be rolling off Dean, their barbs now seem to be finding their mark.

"Dean has been the front-runner for a couple of months now," said Linda Fowler, professor of government at Dartmouth College. "In the beginning, the news coverage was positive, he was this genius who had figured out the Internet, and it was inevitable that once he settled into front-runner status, he would be the one taking the hits. And he hasn't helped himself with a couple of untimely remarks."

Martin Bradie of Sunapee, 74, started as a Dean supporter, but now backs Clark. "After the past couple of weeks of them blasting away at each other, I'm going to support Wes Clark," Bradie said. "I think he's got a good background, and he reminds me of Dwight Eisenhower, who I supported the first time I voted."

The other candidates will only have a week to focus attention on Clark after the results in Iowa are known, but analysts said the heightened scrutiny could have the same effect on Clark that it had on Dean. And the poll indicated that, out of Dean, Kerry, and Clark, the latter's supporters might be the most easily persuaded to switch their loyalties. More than 25 percent who chose Clark said they might change their minds before the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27. Seventeen percent of Dean supporters say they might change their minds, and 16 percent of Kerry supporters might do so. Martha Bauman of Keene is making her final decision in the primary on the basis of who has the best chance of beating Bush in November. Bauman, 72, is leaning toward Clark, because she believes the retired general would do better than her previous favorite, Kerry, against Bush.

But Bauman's support for Clark is not yet firm. She has reservations about what she called "the reliability of his newfound Democratic inclinations." Clark has been the beneficiary of other candidates' assertions that Dean should not be trusted to handle the war on terrorism. Of the voters surveyed, 47 percent said they believed Clark would best be able to effectively fight terrorism and rebuild Iraq. Fourteen percent of those voters chose Dean as best on terrorism and Iraq, and 9 percent chose Kerry. Even Dean supporters conceded that Clark was the superior candidate on those issues, with 43 percent of them choosing the retired general as the candidate on terrorism, while 45 percent of Dean supporters stuck with their candidate.

Still, the war on terrorism is not at the top of New Hampshire primary voters' concerns. Health care and the economy rank higher, according to the poll results.

Analysts agreed that, were Clark not in the field, Kerry would be the beneficiary of the view that Dean is better on domestic rather than foreign issues. That Clark has overtaken him, and on his signature issue, spells serious trouble for Kerry, said Scala. "John Kerry has, for weeks and weeks now, tried to make a virtue out of his experience: `You don't want to trust Howard Dean with foreign policy; you want someone with experience.' And voters buy that argument, but they don't buy the argument that Kerry is the guy who should be the nominee because of that," he said.

Yvonne Abraham can be reached at