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"People-powered” Howard Dean remains the front-runner in MSNBC.com’s Demo Derby - our assessment of who is surging and who is sagging as nine Democrats vie for their party’s presidential nomination.

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Afer the contenders gathered in Albuquerque, N.M., for the first major debate of the 2004 campaign, it was clear that Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman has assigned himself the mission of stopping Dean.

And on the strength of his risky, no-holds-barred assault on Dean, Lieberman moves to a tie for second with Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt in our ranking.

It is the voters, Lieberman said, who must decide whether Dean “has the experience, the strength of leadership and the ability to calmly make decisions under pressure.”

Dean seemed to have muted his rhetorical style in Thursday’s debate, playing the role of the sedate front-runner, although maintaining his barbed attacks on President Bush.

If Dean is the giant -- he’s expected to raise an eye-popping $15 million in campaign contributions in the third quarter of the year -- then will Lieberman play the role of the giant killer?

Or will he alienate rank-and-file Democrats who relish the verve Dean has brought to the party?

Dean’s ample campaign treasury has enabled him to hire field organizers and air TV ads in states where none of the other candidates has yet made a substantial effort.
Gephardt has become more passionate on the campaign trail and is making the phrase “This president is a miserable failure” his trademark.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry falls to third in our assessment. His debate performance was a trifle verbose and detached. Reports of a staff shake-up are also an annoying distraction for Kerry’s campaign.

Staying in the game in fourth place as a pesky presence on Dean’s left flank is Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich. Addressing Dean, Kucinich got off a memorable sound bite on Thursday night: “If you are not going to cut the military and you are talking about balancing the budget, then what are you going to do about social spending? Hello!”

The two other senators in the race, Bob Graham of Florida and John Edwards of North Carolina, are not making big news, but do not seem to be alienating anyone either. That course has yet to be proven as a way of winning the nomination.

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