msnbc.com
updated 1/16/2004 10:17:21 AM ET 2004-01-16T15:17:21

John Kerry as the leader of the pack? The man whose campaign pundits thought only a few weeks ago was cratering? Yes, for Thursday and Friday, at least, Kerry held a small but growing lead in the MSNBC/Reuters/Zogby poll.

According to the Zogby poll and one done by local Des Moines station KCCI the momentum for Howard Dean has been in the wrong direction as the Iowa contest reaches its climax: both polls had Dean losing support over the course of a week.

Once the precinct caucuses report at about 9:15 p.m. ET on Monday night, we could see a four-way photo finish or at least a race in which the winner, whether it is Kerry, Dean, Dick Gephardt or John Edwards, does not have a substantial margin over the runners-up.

Having said it would not use negative or comparative ads, the Gephardt camp launched a negative ad volley at Dean on Thursday, reminding voters of his past support for cutting Medicare’s rate of growth and asking, “How much do you really know about Howard Dean?”

"People are sick of this negative politics," Edwards said. Edwards’s hope: enough Iowans are sick enough of it to flock to him, since he mostly has stayed away from brawling with Dean and the others.

For Gephardt, any kind of a win in Iowa means survival. For Kerry, a win would be as dramatic a comeback as American politics has seen in years. For Edwards, a win would be a spectacular debut on the national stage.

And for Dean? A win in Iowa would reaffirm his front-runner status and put to shame some of the doubting Thomases.

No matter how it ends, Monday’s outcome will reshape the race for the Democratic nomination.

Only two weeks ago some pundits were forecasting that Dean would win both Iowa and New Hampshire, setting the stage for a confident march to the nomination.

But in recent days with the race tightening in Iowa and with retired Gen. Wesley Clark’s surge in New Hampshire, something unthinkable becomes a possibility: Dean could lose Iowa and, with his aura of inevitability stripped away, could lose New Hampshire to Clark.

In a footnote to campaign 2004 history, Carol Moseley Braun withdrew  from the race Thursday and endorsed Dean. In MSNBC.com interviews in Iowa and New Hampshire, Moseley Braun’s name is one that potential voters and political activists did not bring up.

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