msnbc.com
updated 1/12/2004 1:20:00 PM ET 2004-01-12T18:20:00

In our latest Demo Derby rankings, based on new MSNBC/Reuters Zogby polling  of Iowa Democrats and MSNBC.com interviews with rank-and-file Democrats in Iowa, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is holding on to a slim lead over Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt. Dean is at 26 percent among Iowa Democrats to Gephardt’s 23 percent, a lead within the poll’s margin of error.

The outcome of the caucuses next Monday may well hinge on how many voters who first cast ballots for Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman get to their precincts.

No surprise that Gephardt calls himself a Roosevelt and Truman Democrat in his campaign appearances around Iowa.

Gephardt’s strength — which you can see from his audiences in Iowa and from polling data — is the older voter who finds Gephardt’s “steady hands” and commitment to Social Security and Medicare reassuring.

Gephardt's spin
The spin from Gephardt campaign manager Steve Murphy is that Dean “has built himself up to inevitable front-runner status,” therefore it would be “a very damaging loss for his candidacy” if Dean did not win Iowa.

That may be true, but for Gephardt a loss would be the end of his candidacy. Dean on the other hand has the resources to fight on in New Hampshire and other states.

Demo Derby gives North Carolina Sen. John Edwards a forward nudge on the strength of his endorsement by Iowa’s biggest paper , the Des Moines Register. But Edwards is still not within striking distance of Gephardt and Dean.

In the latest Zogby tracking poll, Edwards dropped two points from 14 percent to 12 percent. 

Kerry's battle for Iowa
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is battling in Iowa, with Sen. Ted Kennedy at his side at some stops. Zogby polling places Kerry in third place with 16 percent.

But the MSNBC debate Sunday  once again showed Kerry letting slip through his fingers a chance to confront Dean about his support for the October 2002 Biden-Lugar amendment that would have authorized President Bush to wage war unilaterally on Iraq — the very same idea Dean blames Kerry and other Democrats for supporting.

Kerry brought the topic up in the debate, but never explained clearly to the audience what the Biden-Lugar measure was — and failed to press Dean for a specific answer on it.

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Kerry likewise failed to press his advantage in last week’s Des Moines Register debate when he allowed Dean to slip away without fully answering a question about why Dean had floated an “interesting theory” he had heard about Bush getting prior warning from the Saudis regarding the Sept. 11 attacks.

Lieberman slipping
Lieberman slips a bit in Demo Derby ranking due to his long-winded and eccentric questioning of his fellow candidates during Sunday night’s MSNBC debate.

Retired Gen. Wes Clark  also slips a bit. Although he is drawing good crowds in New Hampshire, he made another of his ill-advised remarks in the past few days when he said if elected there would be no more terrorist attacks on the United States. Call it naïveté, call it chutzpah, or call it utter self-confidence but it was another reminder that Clark is the untested rookie vying with eight veteran politicians.

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