Tom Curry  /  MSNBC.com
Lois Dencklau, a Democrat in Fort Dodge, Iowa, is a strong Kerry supporter.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 1/16/2004 9:39:27 AM ET 2004-01-16T14:39:27

A few weeks ago, some pundits were placing bets on how soon Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s presidential candidacy would collapse, with some predicting that Howard Dean would storm his way to the party’s nomination.

Now running neck and neck in Iowa, both men campaigned across the state Thursday, with Kerry visiting some of the same towns Dean did a few hours earlier.

Dean on his best days in the 2004 campaign has been a far more compelling speaker than Kerry, but Thursday was a day when neither man was at the top of his form. Fatigue is beginning to wear on both.

Poll numbers give Kerry a lift

Kerry’s star appears on the rise, while Dean’s numbers in the MSNBC/Reuters Zogby tracking poll  of Iowa Democrats slipped a bit Thursday and Friday, putting the two men in a statistical tie with Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards only three days before the 2004 campaign’s opening contest, the Iowa caucuses.

The Dean campaign seemed tense Thursday as the new Zogby poll showed his support sliding from 28 percent early in the week to 21 percent. Dean’s number dropped a bit more in Friday’s tracking poll, to 19 percent.

Several hours after Dean flipped pancakes at a breakfast at the Fort Dodge Museum Opera House, Kerry arrived in Fort Dodge to rally about 150 of his supporters at Iowa Central Community College’s student center.

Kerry’s speech in Fort Dodge showed that he still hadn’t overcome his tendency to speak in sentences that run on and on: “We need to reclaim our own democracy in the United States of America and the way we reclaim it is by going to those caucuses next Monday and making a choice that helps us to defend the principles of our party and advance the cause of our country.”

He did get in a stinging shot at Dean, who, in tapes that NBC News broadcast last week , derided the Iowa caucuses four years ago as dominated by special interests.

Special interests in Iowa?
Looking over his audience in Fort Dodge, many of them retirees and veterans, Kerry dryly said, “This is a great tribute to the democratic process … out here in Iowa, and I respect it. I have not seen any special interests anywhere in this Iowa caucus process.”

The Dean pancake breakfast in Fort Dodge also drew about 150 people, but the crowd was subdued and applause was restrained compared to the exuberant pump-up-the-volume rallies that Dean has had here in Iowa and in other states in recent months.

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But Iowa’s senior Democrat, Sen. Tom Harkin, who endorsed Dean last week, reminded the crowd of one of the tenets of the Dean electability argument: He will beat Bush because he will attract new and alienated voters.

“In my adult lifetime I have never seen anyone energize and bring people into this party as much as Howard Dean has done in the last year,” Harkin told the crowd in his warm-up remarks for Dean.

Kerry tried to poke a hole in this argument by implying the Dean candidacy was a self-indulgent protest vote. “We do not need today just anger, we need answers,” he said. “I ask you when you go to those caucuses, don’t just go there to send a message, go there to send America a president of the United States.”

Vietnam experience
One of the rhetorical trademarks of Kerry’s presidential bid has been his inevitable reference in nearly every speech to his service in the Navy during the Vietnam War.

An insider's guideWhile reporters grew tired of hearing yet another reference to Vietnam, it turns out all that repetition is helping Kerry with voters, some of whom bring up his military service as one of the primary reasons they consider backing him.

“I have two nephews who served in the Army in the Vietnam War,” said Lois Dencklau, a Democratic activist and Kerry supporter in Fort Dodge.

“I felt exactly the way Kerry did: It was a terrible war. But that didn’t stop him from being there and serving his country.”

Dencklau, who has met with all the major Democratic contenders this year, refuted the notion of Kerry’s aloofness. “Personally when you meet with him one on one, he is extra-special. There is no arrogance.”

Asked who she means by her reference to arrogance, Dencklau said, “Four letters, starts with a D and ends with an N.”

Dencklau is even put off by the rigid set of Dean’s mouth when he comes under pressure. “I just don’t trust him,” she said. “Some of the things he says, like he’s going to balance the budget in seven years. I don’t know if that is possible.”

Dean and Kerry similarities
Dean and Kerry are alike in many ways: both are New Englanders, both Ivy League graduates, both at one point in the race have been deemed the front runner for the nomination (Kerry last spring, Dean ever since late summer). They share nearly identical positions on several issues: the need for alternative energy sources, opposition to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the priority of more federal spending on education, commitment to legal protection for gay couples, and defense of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

But on three key issues Dean and Kerry part company:

Kerry voted for the No Child Left Behind Act and has complained that President Bush has refused to request sufficient funds from Congress to make it work. Dean opposes the act as a federal intrusion on local authority, mocking it as “The No School Board Left Standing Act.” Kerry would preserve the portions of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts that benefit middle-class workers; Dean seeks to repeal the entire 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, even though that would mean many middle-class families would pay a few thousand dollars more a year in income taxes. Kerry voted for the Iraq war resolution in October 2002, a vote Dean has fiercely criticized, although Dean himself supported a war resolution, the Biden-Lugar measure that would have authorized Bush to wage war unilaterally on Iraq as long as he made an effort to seek a U.N. resolution approving use of force

And as the clock ticks down to the final hours before Iowa Democrats must stand up in their precincts and be counted, the issue of the war continues to provide Dean with his handiest and perhaps most lethal club with which he can batter his rivals.

“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,” Dean said in Fort Dodge.

The Iraq war is what ignited Dean’s candidacy and it is that issue to which he is returning in his closing argument to Iowa voters.

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