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Overshadowed by the duel in Iowa between Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt, retired Gen. Wesley Clark topped a new South Carolina poll this week, gaining ground in our Demo Derby assessment of the Democratic race. Could a Dean-Gephardt stalemate coming out of the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire provide an opening for Clark if he wins South Carolina?

Clark — who is skipping the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses and denying himself the intense news media coverage there — has launched a flurry of biographical TV ads this week in South Carolina, Oklahoma and Arizona, all of which hold primaries Feb. 3. A victory in at least one of those contests would seem a prerequisite for Clark to soldier on to later contests.

Clark also showed a bit of willingness to deploy “tactical weapons” this week, with a wily dig at Dean, who as a young man went skiing in Colorado after getting his medical deferment (due to back pain) from serving in the Army during the Vietnam War.

“I didn’t have as much practice skiing as the governor did. He was out there skiing when I was recovering from my wounds in Vietnam,” the retired general said.

In several recent polls, “undecided” continues to get more support than any of the declared contenders. This suggests the race is still volatile, despite Dean’s advantage in money and in numbers of motivated foot soldiers.

Dean slumps in this edition of Demo Derby for a string of unforced errors:

Trying to keep 150 boxes of his records as Vermont governor sealed, although, under pressure, by midweek Dean said through a spokesman that he was looking at ways to open some documents to the public. Dean explained the sealing back in January, saying, “There are political considerations. We didn’t want anything embarrassing appearing in the papers at a crucial time in any future endeavor.”

Sounding blasé in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews about where Osama bin Laden might be put on trial — at the Hague or in the United States — if he were captured. “You know, the truth is it doesn’t make a lot of difference to me as long as he is brought to justice,” Dean said.

Self-confidently lecturing Bush, “Mr. President, if you’ll pardon me, I’ll teach you a little about defense” — and then just 48 hours later telling Matthews, “the key, I believe, to Iran is pressure through the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union is supplying much of the equipment that Iran, I believe, most likely is using to set itself along the path of developing nuclear weapons. We need to use that leverage with the Soviet Union and it may require us to buying the equipment the Soviet Union was ultimately going to sell to Iran.”

Before teaching Bush about defense, might Dean brush up on his geopolitics? The Soviet Union went out of existence in 1991.

But Dean is so confident that he is urging his loyal donors to give more money - no, not to his campaign, but to that of Iowa Democrat Rep. Leonard Boswell.

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Dean has said for months that with him at the top of the ticket, his grass-roots movement could bring so many new voters to the Democrats that they will win back the House and Senate.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, meanwhile, reclaimed some media attention with a speech accusing Bush and his aides of a “sudden embrace of accelerated Iraqification and American troop withdrawal dates.” Kerry said he feared that Bush was going to follow what he called “a cut-and-run strategy.”

One of Kerry’s advisers said he “would not rule out the possibility” of sending additional U.S. troops to Iraq if they were needed.

It was a noteworthy shift by a candidate who:

Voted for the congressional war resolution on Iraq last October.

Complained in March that even despite that vote, Bush had still not earned “the legitimacy and consent of the American people.”

Warned in September that “the worst thing” would be to send more U.S. troops to Iraq,

And finally voted in October against the $87 billion Bush sought to sustain military operations in Iraq.

Questions occurred: Had Kerry written off the anti-Iraq war voters, conceding them to Dean and to Rep. Dennis Kucinich? Were there enough Iraq hawks among Democratic primary voters to lift Kerry to victory? Would voters see a thread of logic in Kerry’s statements and votes on Iraq?

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