Joe Radle, Scott Olson, Spencer Platt  /  Getty Images
The three front-runners are all campaigning in Iowa on Thursday: Howard Dean flips pancakes in Fort Dodge,  Dick Gephardt meets and greets in Mason City and John Kerry gets back on the bus in Council Bluffs. John Edwards is in fourth place, but the gap between him and first place is within the poll’s margin of error.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 1/15/2004 3:18:21 PM ET 2004-01-15T20:18:21

After being written off only two weeks ago as a near certain loser in the Iowa caucuses, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is gaining ground, according to the latest Reuters/MSNBC/ Zogby poll released Thursday.

In the latest rolling three-day poll, Kerry registered 21.6 percent with Dean and Gephardt both at 20.9 percent. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards gained two percentage points to 17.1 percent, well within the poll’s margin of error, putting all four top contenders in a statistical tie.

Gephardt launched a new TV ad attack on Dean Thursday, seemingly aimed at shoring up his base of support among voters over age 65.

“How much do you really know about Howard Dean?” the ad’s narrator asks. “Did you know he supported the Republican plan to cut Medicare by $270 billion?”

After last Sunday’s MSNBC debate, Gephardt campaign manager Steve Murphy said Gephardt would not run comparative ads in the final week before Jan 19.

“Dick Gephardt wants to end the campaign on a positive note. No candidate has run a comparative or negative ever in the history of the Iowa Democratic caucuses except Howard Dean,” Murphy told MSNBC.com.

The latest polling data suggested that most of the undecided voters in Iowa are migrating to Kerry and Edwards, the two contenders here with clear momentum at this point.

“It’s a three-way tie, and Kerry and Gephardt are now tied among union voters as Dean’s labor support slips,” Zogby told Reuters. With Edwards continuing to gain ground “this race is actually a four-way statistical dead heat.

“We might see these candidates exchanging leads all the way to the end,” Zogby said, with 11 percent of likely caucus-goers still undecided and many switching their support as they take a harder look at the choices ahead of Monday’s contest.

Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi told reporters at a campaign stop in Fort Dodge that the campaign’s own polling over the past few days showed that “we’re fine.”

An insider's guideTrippi dismissed the latest Zogby data showing Kerry and Dean statistically tied.

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“If anybody is looking at those tracking polls, including our own, and thinking that they’re accurate or show anything that has anything to do with anything that’s going to happens on Monday, I caution you there is a long history of tracks particularly in the last week having nothing to do with the outcome. ... I’ve been here through four Iowa caucuses and the one consistent thing I can tell you is that the tracking polls have always been wrong in the last week.”

“At this point in the caucuses, it’s not about the polls, it’s about organize, organize, organize; get out the vote, get out the vote, get out the vote,” Trippi said.

Introducing Dean to the Fort Dodge crowd, which numbered about 120, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin said, “I tell you, this guy can take a punch; in fact can take about 10 punches a day and come right back.”

Video: Kerry, Edwards surge in Iowa Harkin added, “He has the toughness to go toe-to-toe with Bush and Karl Rove and that crowd. ... They want to keep you afraid, they want to keep you powerless. ... This is the candidate I’ve been looking for all my adult life.”

Dean told the crowd, “All of my opponents are good people, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry and John Edwards, they’re all good people but not one of them stood up to the president when it came time to declare war and send out troops to Iraq last year.”

Interviews by MSNBC.com with rank-and-file voters in Iowa find a clear reaction against negative ads and attacks being fired by Dean at Gephardt and visa versa. Dean is currently on Iowa’s TV airwaves with an ad attacking Gephardt, Kerry, and Edwards for supporting the war in Iraq.

The possibility of a virtual four way tie in Monday nights precinct caucuses raises the stakes for the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary.

In recent days retired general Wesley Clark has made a substantial surge in New Hampshire, as measured by polling and the size of the crowds at his events.

Heated attacks
All of the candidates plan an extensive schedule of campaigning in Iowa in the race’s final days. Dean and Gephardt have been exchanging heated attacks in the race to the finish.

The rolling poll of 502 likely caucus-goers was taken Monday through Wednesday and has a margin of error of 4.5 percent. The poll will continue each day until Monday’s caucuses.

The polling was concluded before Wednesday night’s news that former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun would drop out of the race and throw her support to Dean. Braun’s move leaves eight Democrats vying for the right to challenge President Bush in November.

Dean and Gephardt have battled back and forth for months for the top spot in polls in Iowa, the first big contest in the nominating race, but the late charges by Edwards and Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts, have scrambled the Democratic picture.

Dean, the former Vermont governor, still holds a large but shrinking lead over Clark in polls in New Hampshire.

Gephardt, the congressman from neighboring Missouri who won Iowa during his first presidential bid in 1988, must win Iowa to remain in the race.

Clark and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich were at 3 percent in the latest poll, while Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Braun were at 1 percent, with former civil rights activist Al Sharpton at less than 1 percent.

Clark and Lieberman are not competing in Iowa.

Polling in Iowa is complicated by the unique nature of the caucus system, which requires participants to leave their homes on a typically bitter cold night and gather with neighbors for hours before publicly declaring their support for a candidate.

The ability to identify and turn out supporters is critical to each of the campaigns. The Zogby poll only included respondents who said they were likely to attend the caucuses. 

 Reuters contributed to this report.

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