U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone Memorial Service
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Sen. Tom Harkin is known as Iowa's most durable Democrat.
updated 1/9/2004 3:28:03 PM ET 2004-01-09T20:28:03

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin endorsed Howard Dean for president on Friday, calling him the “kind of plain-spoken Democrat we need” and giving a key boost to the embattled front-runner 10 days before the state’s kick-off caucuses.

Harkin disclosed his decision in an interview with The Associated Press. A formal afternoon announcement was scheduled at Dean’s Iowa headquarters.

Harkin’s support will give Dean the backing of the state’s most durable Democratic politician, a four-term senator whose organization can prove a vital asset on caucus night Jan 19.

Dean and his rivals for the nomination had all appealed to Harkin for backing, and the senator said publicly in recent days he was weighing whether to choose sides, or perhaps remain neutral.

In the interview, Harkin praised Dean’s straightforward approach to campaigning, saying it brought a breath of fresh air to the campaign trail.

Truman comparison
He said the former Vermont governor is “the Harry Truman of our generation. Howard Dean is really the kind of plain-spoken Democrat we need.”

If the endorsement was a boost, the timing was a political gift for Dean, who spent the day struggling to prevent lasting damage from the impact of his 4-year-old comments  in which he said the presidential caucus system was dominated by extremist interests.

“Four years ago, I didn’t really understand the Iowa caucuses,” Dean said during the day.

Dean leads in the polls in Iowa, but caucuses demand a sophisticated organizational structure as well, and he has been counting on an army of young volunteers to help deliver victory.

Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts are challenging Dean for first place in private polls in the state taken in recent days, with Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina trailing.

Gephardt has flatly predicted he will win Iowa, and his aides concede he must. Kerry, a long-ago national front-runner who has frittered away his lead, is looking to Iowa to reinvigorate his candidacy. Edwards hopes to survive until primaries on Feb. 3, including one in the state where he was born — South Carolina.

The importance of being Iowa
Because of its lead-off position on the election calendar, Iowa often takes on outsized importance in the race for a presidential nomination of either party. A victory can propel the winner into the New Hampshire primary eight days later with strong momentum, while a defeat, even a narrow one, can be hard to overcome.

Iowa’s Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack said earlier this week that he will remain neutral, as he did in the 2000 Democratic race. Harkin, who briefly sought the nomination in 1992, was the more coveted prize this year for the Democratic hopefuls.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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