Demo Derby
updated 1/14/2004 9:18:57 AM ET 2004-01-14T14:18:57

Howard Dean seems to be the feeling the heat of his rivals in Iowa with just five days left until precinct caucuses next Monday night. Nevertheless, he still leads the pack — if even by a nose — in the latest installment of MSNBC's Demo Derby.

The latest  MSNBC/Reuters Zogby tracking poll  shows Dean slipping after gaining over the previous five days of polling in Iowa.

And, in fact, campaign strategists for both Rep. Dick Gephardt and Dean say the outcome of the Iowa contest could end up as something close to a four-way tie with Dean, Gephardt, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry all closely bunched.

After playing the calm, above-the-fray front-runner for several days, Dean brought his heavy artillery into action Tuesday. In a new television ad and in stump speeches, Dean assailed Kerry, Edwards and Gephardt for supporting President Bush and the congressional resolution that give him authority to go to war against Iraq.

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“The traditional strategy when you’re on the decline is to attack your opponents on the air and that’s what Howard Dean has done,” said Gephardt campaign manager Steve Murphy.

As Kerry pointed out in Sunday night's debate, Dean himself supported a unilateral war resolution and has not disavowed his support for it. Dean backed the October 2002 Biden-Lugar amendment which would have authorized Bush to wage war unilaterally on Iraq as long as he made an effort to seek a UN resolution authorizing use of force.

The strident tone of the attacks between Dean and Gephardt, and between Dean and Kerry, is driving some of the uncommitted to Edwards, who for the most part has stayed out of the cross-fire.

"He has a positive message," said former congressional candidate and Iowa state Rep. Paul Shomshor, who is widely respected in western Iowa. Shomshor said he is backing Edwards partly because “it is tough to watch our candidates taking shots at each other. We could get a nominee who is so beat up by March or April that it will tough for him to compete in November.”

Shomshor also backs Edwards because he figures he could carry some of the Southern states in a November battle with Bush.

Meanwhile, retired Gen Wesley Clark and Sen. Joe Lieberman have New Hampshire pretty much to themselves. Clark is outpacing Kerry and Lieberman in the American Research Group tracking poll in New Hampshire. A strong second for Clark in New Hampshire would set up a fascinating South Carolina contest on Feb. 3, especially between him and Edwards.

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