- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2003

Antiwar candidate Howard Dean is lengthening his lead in Iowa and New Hampshire, forcing his closest Democratic presidential rivals to spend more time in those states as he campaigns across the country.

A month before the curtain formally rises on the 2004 primaries, the former Vermont governor has solidified his position in the first two pivotal contests — moving well ahead of Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt in Iowa and leaving Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry a distant 21 points behind in New Hampshire. Back-to-back victories in these states could give Mr. Dean enough momentum to sweep most of the succeeding primaries and lock up his party’s nomination by early to mid-March, campaign strategists say.

A poll of likely Democratic caucus voters in Iowa by WHO-TV in Des Moines showed Mr. Dean leading Mr. Gephardt by 32 percent to 22 percent, with Mr. Kerry in third place with 19 percent. Several New Hampshire polls of likely Democratic voters in the past two weeks showed Mr. Dean running ahead of Mr. Kerry by about 2 to 1, including a Marist College Institute for Public Opinion poll that showed Mr. Dean with a commanding 44 percent to 23 percent lead.

“Dean has been the only candidate with a consistent message from day one and Dean voters have shown over the past several months that they are going to stick with him to the last,” said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000.

But the Democratic contest for the right to challenge President Bush next November comes at a time when the nation’s political terrain appears to be improving dramatically for the White House. The economy was growing at an annualized rate of 8.2 percent in the third quarter, the fastest in two decades; jobless-benefit claims are falling as businesses have begun hiring again, and Mr. Bush has won congressional passage of his Medicare prescription-drug bill with the support of the 35 million-member AARP.

Not surprisingly, then, not only have Mr. Bush’s job approval poll numbers begun rising again in the past month, but his polls also show he would beat any of the top Democratic challengers in the field. Notably, Mr. Dean — who opposed the war in Iraq and wants to repeal all of the Bush tax cuts — runs the weakest of all against the president in a national, head-to-head Time/CNN poll conducted Nov. 18-19. Mr. Bush wins that matchup by 52 percent to 39 percent.

In Florida, a major electoral state that Mr. Bush barely won in a disputed vote count in 2000, a Mason-Dixon poll reported that the president had a 20-point lead over any Democratic rival.

Meanwhile, Mr. Dean is not only beating all of his Democratic rivals in Iowa and New Hampshire, in some instances he is beating them in their home states.

A Boston Herald poll of primary voters reported that state Democrats backed the former Vermont governor over Mr. Kerry by 33 percent to 24 percent. Two earlier polls showed them in a statistical dead heat, an embarrassing result for the Massachusetts senator who was once considered the odds-on choice for his party’s nomination.

A Quinnipiac University Poll showed Sen. Joe Lieberman was barely leading Mr. Dean in his home state of Connecticut — 28 percent to 23 percent.

Mr. Dean’s growing strength in Iowa and New Hampshire means that his closest challengers have had to spend more time and money there. Advisers to both the Gephardt and Kerry campaigns say they will be airing more TV ads this month attacking Mr. Dean.

“If you are a resident of Iowa and New Hampshire, you are going to see the most negative ads ever. This is going to be a bad month for negative campaigning,” Miss Brazile said.

It also means that Mr. Dean now has the luxury of being able to devote more time to other states where he already has built a substantial ground organization made up of liberal, antiwar activists and unions who compose a large part of the Democratic Party’s base.

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