msnbc.com
updated 1/12/2004 1:30:15 PM ET 2004-01-12T18:30:15

Oh no! Through our binoculars, we see clearly that John Kerry’s donkey — hmmm, that actually looks an awful lot like a Harley — has had a terrible mishap on the Demo Derby back stretch.

The Massachusetts senator fired his campaign manager Monday, then two of his top aides quit on him Tuesday. It’s Turmoil with a capital “T” and that rhymes with “D” and that stands for Dean, Howard Dean, who just as Kerry went though his bad patch, picked up the endorsements of the nation’s two biggest unions in a love-fest press conference Wednesday in Washington.

Dean is “a candidate that can energize people to get to the polls, a candidate that can raise the money to be heard, and a candidate that can draw clear distinctions between himself and George Bush” and win the presidency, in the words of Service Employees International Union President Andrew Stern. The backing of the SEIU and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees helps keep Dean firmly in the lead of Demo Derby this week.

Slideshow: On the campaign trail Having announced last weekend that he was opting out of federal matching funds and the spending lid that comes with them, Dean is now free to raise and spend as much as he chooses to.

Rival campaigns — all with much less cash than Dean — fired criticism at him, with Sen. Joe Lieberman saying the Democratic front-runner had “broken his promise to stay within the public financing system. I think it’s a real shame that Howard Dean would abandon his pledge so easily, just because it became politically convenient. I don’t believe the way to beat Bush is to emulate him by rejecting all spending limits in the primaries.”

But how much do Democratic primary voters really care about spending limits and the public financing system? We’ll find out in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 and in the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27.

Now, as we enter the Thanksgiving-New Year’s holiday season, which traditionally is a tough time for candidates to raise money, Dean’s financial edge — $12.4 million cash on hand as of Sept. 30 — looms even larger.

In Iowa, Rep. Dick Gephardt got a boost when the Des Moines Register poll showed Sunday that he had a 7 percentage point lead over Dean among those likely to take part in the caucuses. Dean has gained 6 percentage points since July, when the last Des Moines Register poll was taken, while Dean has slipped 3 points.

The poll showed that one-fifth of likely caucus participants are still uncertain about whom to support — which means Kerry or Sen. John Edwards or another contender could still become the viable alternative to Dean for Iowans.

As the week ended, all eyes turned to Des Moines where Iowa Democrats gathered for their annual Jefferson-Jackson fund-raising dinner. The dinner’s marquee attraction: keynote speaker Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the most intriguing non-contender for the 2004 Democratic nomination.

Will Sen. Clinton needle the contenders or shower them with praise? Will she steal the hearts of the Iowa Democratic faithful? Will her very appearance on stage diminish the contenders? We’ll report back soon.

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