- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2003

Sen. John Kerry, once considered the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, is falling behind his chief rivals in the national polls and in key primary and caucus states.

The Massachusetts senator, who led polls in neighboring New Hampshire for months, has slipped badly there in the past few weeks. Meanwhile, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has surged into first place with a 7 percentage-point lead on a wave of TV ads and the fierce support of liberal activists opposed to the war in Iraq.

Mr. Kerry runs no better than third or fourth among Democrats in Iowa and has dropped to fourth place nationally. His support registers in single digits in the national polls.

Election analysts say Mr. Kerry’s decline is largely the result of his inability to fashion a strong political message that can overcome the combative Mr. Dean’s sharply partisan message against Mr. Bush’s handling of Iraq, the economy and jobs.

“It’s message versus no message,” said pollster John Zogby. “Dean is focused. His messages can fit on a bumper sticker. They’re clear. You know who he is and you know where he stands. …

“Kerry just hasn’t found a focus yet. He is all nuances. He can give you competing arguments on all the major issues and have you walk away and say, ‘Yeah, but where does he stand?’” Mr. Zogby said.

Democratic strategists acknowledge that Mr. Kerry has one of the best professional campaign teams in the business. But they say he has not been able to get any traction for his attacks against Mr. Dean, who is in a dead heat with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri for first among Iowa Democrats. In some polls, Mr. Dean is slightly ahead of the former House Democratic leader.

Earlier this month, Gallup found that support for Mr. Kerry fell 3 percentage points nationally in just 10 days. Mr. Kerry sank behind Mr. Dean, Mr. Gephardt and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Regionally, Mr. Zogby’s polling shows Mr. Kerry running well behind his rivals in the East, South and the Midwest.

Mr. Kerry’s third- or fourth-place position in Iowa was bad enough, but his decline in New Hampshire — now 21 percent to Mr. Dean’s 28 percent — has some rival campaigns forecasting the end of Mr. Kerry’s candidacy if he loses the first 2004 primary.

“It’s difficult for any candidate to do poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire and be taken seriously,” said Jim Demers, who is Mr. Gephardt’s chief New Hampshire strategist, “and it becomes even more difficult if you are a New Englander and do poorly in New Hampshire.”

Mr. Kerry’s supporters, and even some of his opponents, discounted his slippage more than five months before the first votes — the Jan. 24 Iowa caucuses and the Jan. 27 primary in New Hampshire. Most voters are not focused on the presidential elections and won’t be until sometime after Labor Day, they say.

“Polls at this stage are essentially meaningless, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire. Dean’s had a lot of favorable press in the last couple of weeks, with cover stories in Time and Newsweek,” said Philip Johnston, a Kerry adviser and chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

“If Kerry loses New Hampshire, I think we’d have the resources to go on, but I don’t want to speculate, because I think he will win,” Mr. Johnston said.

Mr. Dean has been running TV ads in southern New Hampshire for nearly two weeks now. The Kerry campaign decided to wait until early September when his advisers believe voters will be paying more attention.

“Kerry had great name recognition, but the part of New Hampshire closest to Massachusetts didn’t really know Howard Dean. As Howard’s name recognition has grown, you are seeing a shift going on,” said Boston businessman Steve Grossman, the former Democratic national chairman who is now co-chairman of the Dean campaign. “Going on television early, that’s part of why his numbers have gone up.”

Mr. Dean’s early surge may help lock more Democrats and independents in his corner, making it difficult for Mr. Kerry to later recover from early losses — as Bill Clinton did in 1992 after placing second in New Hampshire.

Mr. Gephardt’s advisers are playing up the Dean-Kerry rivalry, hoping it will create an opening for the Missouri congressman, whose strategy is to win Iowa and place a strong third in New Hampshire.

“For Howard Dean and John Kerry, New Hampshire is like a demolition derby. Only one of them will drive out. When you come from next door, like Massachusetts or Vermont, you have to win here in order to move on,” Mr. Demers said.

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