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This installment of Demo Derby takes urgent note of the calendar: Halloween is here, Thanksgiving is upon us in a few weeks, then we have the Christmas holiday season, so voters’ minds will be distracted for some time. What’s more important on Dec. 20, Howard Dean’s stand on Medicare or that gift you still haven’t bought for your spouse? The Iowa caucuses take place a little over three weeks after Christmas.

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Demo Derby front-runner Dean is maintaining his lead in New Hampshire polls and running just about even with Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt in Iowa.

Given “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” isn’t perhaps time running out for Dean’s rivals to inflict damage on him?

Gephardt’s task may be about to get harder: The nation’s largest labor union, the Service Employees International Union seems on the verge of announcing its backing of Dean next week at its board meeting.

Union president Andrew Stern said, “It is becoming clear that the passion of the members lies with Gov. Dean, and that ultimately the decision before the board will be to either endorse him or endorse no one.”

In anticipation of an SEIU endorsement of Dean, Demo Derby widens the gap between Dean and Gephardt.

The release of good news on the economy this week — with rip-roaring economic growth and the declining number of people applying for unemployment insurance — means Democrats may focus more on Iraq as Bush’s chief vulnerability. That in turn might favor the well-funded Dean and the under-funded but ebullient Rep. Dennis Kucinich - who’ve taken the strongest anti-war positions since last year. Kucinich is the only one of the contenders to have voted against last year’s congressional resolution authorizing Bush to go to war against Iraq.

Gephardt opened fire on Dean again this week, accusing him of wanting to cut Medicare outlays (currently $277 billion a year and growing at a rate of 8 percent a year).

(Demo Derby leaves aside for now the important question: “is calling for controlling Medicare’s rate of growth, as Dean did in 1995, the same as advocating cuts in Medicare?”)

“On all these Medicare issues, there is very little difference between George Bush and Howard Dean,” charged Gephardt, speaking to an elderly audience in Des Moines.

But where is Gephardt’s one-two punch - the damning speech combined with the pervasive TV attack ads on stations across Iowa?

Lieberman moves up a bit in our Demo Derby assessment. He is staying in the fray with his big ad purchase in New Hampshire.

One ad accused Republicans of planning “to ransack the whole Social Security trust fund if we don’t stop them,” the other touted Lieberman’s support for Bush’s request for $87 billion in funding for Iraq operations.

“I didn’t duck it. I didn’t play politics. I voted to support our troops and finish the job,” he tells viewers.

But the Lieberman ads debuted just as a new round of suicide bombings rocked Baghdad - unfortunate timing for him.

As the man who takes credit for advocating the overthrow of Saddam Hussein way back in 1998, Lieberman’s fate seems to be linked to the success of Bush’s Iraq policy.

Kerry - not yet gaining ground in the recent round of Iowa and New Hampshire polls - continues his scathing attacks both on Dean and on Bush. Kerry casts himself as the champion of the middle class who, he says, will be hurt if Dean is elected president and persuades Congress to undo both the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.

As for Bush, Kerry said this week “standing in the Rose Garden and stating that ‘Iraq is a dangerous place’ does nothing to make American troops safer…. President Bush has failed to take the target off the backs of American soldiers.”

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark made headlines by accusing Bush of responsibility for intelligence failures that allowed the Sept 11 terrorist attacks to occur. “The buck rests with the commander in chief, right on George W. Bush’s desk,” he said.

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