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It’s Dean and Gephardt, Gephardt and Dean, locked in a statistical tie in the latest polls of Democratic voters in Iowa, which holds its first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses on Jan. 19. MSNBC.com’s Demo Derby, our regular assessment of where the Democratic presidential race stands, keeps Howard Dean in first place.

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This week, the former Vermont governor aired a new round of TV ads in Iowa and New Hampshire -- a sign of financial muscle, but perhaps also an indication of concern that he is getting roughed up by recurring attacks on him by Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

"One hundred and thirty-thousand troops in Iraq, with no end in sight and a price tag that goes up daily,” Dean tells viewers in one of the ads. “The best my opponents can do is ask questions today that they should have asked before they supported the war. I opposed the war from the start.”

So too did Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, but his campaign had less than $800,000 in cash on hand as of Sept 30,  a pittance when compared with Dean’s $12.4 million.

Reacting to the new Dean ads, Kerry spokesman Robert Gibbs said, “The only plausible explanation is they're seeing their poll numbers heading south."

If the Kerry camp keeps saying that, perhaps it may happen. But for now Dean is holding steady in Iowa polls at about 20 percent (statistically tied with Gephardt), while in New Hampshire a Franklin Pierce College poll of 600 likely primary voters found Dean with a 14 percentage point lead over Kerry.

That’s quite a change from the last Franklin Pierce College survey in July in which Kerry and Dean were virtually tied.

The Kerry campaign unveiled its own Iowa poll Thursday. Based on a survey of 500 likely Iowa caucus-goers, it found Gephardt and Dean locked in a statistical tie with ... Kerry!

Those Democrats who aren’t too keen on Dean are looking around and asking, "Who can stop him?"

If it is to be Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, then Democrats will have to wait until after Iowa and in truth after New Hampshire, too, since Lieberman revealed this week his strategic decision to bypass Iowa, compete in New Hampshire (where the polls show him only in single digits) and bank heavily on the Feb. 3 round of contests in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

Lieberman continued to carve out a more-conservative-than-the-other-fellows persona by voting this week to keep alive a bill limiting class-action lawsuits.

The legislation -- stymied for now by a Democratic filibuster threat -- is opposed by a key Democratic Party constituency, the trial lawyers.

The bill got support from almost all Senate Republicans and from Lieberman-like centrist Democrats such as Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Tom Carper of Delaware and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. For the record, Kerry and another Democratic presidential contender, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards missed the vote, while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton voted to kill the bill.
Clinton headlines the Nov. 15 Iowa Democratic Party dinner in Des Moines, some kind of statement in itself.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark slips back a bit in Demo Derby, since he’s only at 7 percent in the Franklin Pierce College poll of likely New Hampshire voters. Clark, like Lieberman, is bypassing Iowa to concentrate on later contests.

Clark draws support of 12 percent, compared to Edwards' 14 percent and  Gephardt’s 13 percent in the most recent South Carolina poll.

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