MANCHESTER, N.H. — With MSNBC’s latest poll showing the battle for New Hampshire suddenly tightening, Democratic presidential hopefuls turned their attention to independents as the clock ticked down to Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primary.
In the MSNBC/Zogby Reuters tracking poll released Sunday and covering Thursday through Saturday, Sen. John Kerry held a 30-23 percent lead over his closest rival, Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont.
The seven-point margin for Kerry in the three-day period was down two percentage points from the previous day's numbers. "Dean had another good polling day, actually bouncing back to 25 points on Saturday, compared to Kerry's 28," pollster John Zogby said. "Undecideds climbed slightly on Saturday, indicating a shift may be taking place."
The Democratic race in New Hampshire has been turned upside down by the results of
Monday’s Iowa caucuses
, where Kerry, of Massachusetts, rolled to a big win, Sen. John Edwards was a strong second and one-time front-runner Dean collapsed to third place in the battle to find a candidate to challenge President George W. Bush.
But the latest Zogby poll shows Dean may be rallying his supporters. "Two-thirds of Dean's supporters say their support is 'very strong,' as do 56% of Kerry's," Zogby said. "The race looks as though it is tightening, however, it is Kerry's to lose at this point."
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark's support declined a percentage point, to 13 percent. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut were tied at 9.
A tracking poll totals three consecutive days of polling, then tosses the first day’s results each time a new day is added. Pollsters say tracking polls show shifts in voter sentiment as they happen.
And in the frenzied final days on the New Hampshire trail, as the candidates desperately tried to shift voter sentiment to their camps in a number of ways, appeals to independent voters were taking center stage.
Nonpartisan independents are New Hampshire ’s largest voting bloc —37.5 percent compared with 26 percent Democrats and 36.5 percent Republicans. They can vote in party primaries and some analysts say they may hold the key to the New Hampshire outcome.
A record showing by independents, known here as undeclared, propelled maverick Republican John McCain to a big victory over Bush in New Hampshire in 2000.
Mindful of that, this year’s candidates are underscoring anti-corporate themes and vowing to fight special interests.
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Dean has called for campaign finance reform, an issue that helped McCain garner extensive support from independents in 2000.
Edwards, a trial lawyer who became wealthy taking on powerful corporations, on Friday denounced “war profiteers” he said are winning contracts for work in Iraq while making political contributions to the well-connected in Washington.
Kerry on Saturday was endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters, the first major environmental group to endorse one of the Democrats.
Lieberman has taken to specifically appealing for independent as well as Democratic votes, saying he doesn’t take “different positions before different audiences at different times. … I’m all about experience. I’m all about integrity in the sense of trusting people enough to level with them.”
And Gen. Wesley Clark made his own populist appeal Friday, promising to force pharmaceutical companies to reimburse taxpayers when they use federal subsidies to develop profitable prescription drugs.
But analysts kept most of their attention over the weekend directed at Kerry. As the Iowa winner tried to close his case for victory in New Hampshire, he was also cobbling together a national organization for the next perilous step toward nomination.Slideshow: On the campaign trail
If he pulls it off, Kerry will storm out of New Hampshire 2-0 in primary season races, the undisputed front-runner and the man to beat when seven states — including his coveted Missouri — hold Feb. 3 elections.
“We’re not assuming we’re in anything other than a real tough fight,” said Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill.
Despite the polls, Kerry and his staff say they fear an 11th-hour surge by Dean. “He’s working it very hard here and I take that seriously,” Cahill said “He’s going to come back.”
While Cahill and other advisers make plans for February and beyond, Kerry is trying to convince New Hampshire voters that his experience both in the Senate and the Vietnam War make him the best candidate to beat President Bush.
Siphoning from Dean
He hopes to keep siphoning voters from Dean, whose temperament and judgment came into question during the Iowa caucus campaign. Crowds at both Kerry and Dean events are filled with people torn between the candidates, their hearts for Dean and their heads for Kerry.
“I like Dean a lot but I’m concerned about his electability,” said Art Hayek, 50, before Kerry spoke to a crowd in Concord. “I fear he might not have the experience and support beyond voters like me. Kerry might have a better shot against Bush because of his war experience.”
At a Dean rally, Gloria Kelly, 55, said, “His Iowa speech turned me off and I started thinking about Kerry. But if I had to decide now — and I don’t — I’d go with my heart and Howard.”
Kerry is solidifying his claim to be the party’s establishment candidate. In addition to the League of Conservation Voters endorsement, Kerry in recent days has won support from former Vice President Walter Mondale and South Carolina Sen. Ernest Hollings.
South Carolina is an important Feb. 3 state, as is Missouri, which made Friday’s hiring of Steve Elmendorf a Kerry coup. Elmendorf is a long time adviser to Rep. Dick Gephardt, whose departure from the presidential race after Iowa put his home state of Missouri and its 74 delegates up for grabs. No other Feb. 3 state has more.
Close ties to labor
Elmendorf knows Missouri politics and has close ties to organized labor and Capitol Hill.
In a sign of his Feb. 3 priorities, Kerry will make Missouri one of his first trips after New Hampshire.
Kerry can afford the $1.5 million price tag to saturate TV markets with ads in all seven states, aides said, and he’ll get even more if he wins New Hampshire. Still, like Dean and the rest of his rivals, Kerry doesn’t have money to waste, thus some states will take priority over others.
In addition to Missouri, Kerry looks to play heavily in Arizona, which has a large percentage of veterans, and New Mexico, where the Catholic candidate will find many voters who share his faith, and Delaware.
South Carolina can’t be avoided, aides said, even if Edwards or Clark look strong after New Hampshire.
“John Kerry doesn’t cede anything to anybody,” said Kerry strategist Michael Meehan. ‘The fact is two of our top rivals are in that state and we will take them on.” Two other issues: South Carolina is the site of an election-week debate, and traditionally a focal point of media attention.
Looking beyond Feb. 3
The campaign is looking beyond Feb. 3 to the next Saturday, when Michigan conducts its primary. Top Kerry strategist Jill Alper left Iowa for Michigan, where she is a consultant to Gov. Jennifer Granholm. The governor’s endorsement, likely headed Kerry’s way, would be a boon.
He also is courting the Democratic governors of Arizona, Missouri and New Mexico.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a Kerry backer, said the senator’s rivals were rattled by the Iowa results. “It’s almost like they’re afraid to attack him,” Markey said.
In past years, New Hampshire was separated by several weeks from the next set of primaries, giving candidates the luxury of time to make plans.
“You could have retail-type campaigns because you had five weeks. That can’t happen this year,” Meehan said. “It will be a campaign of riding whatever wave you have and flying into those states, organizing in places where you have people and making up the rest along the way.”
That leaves the candidates, even hot-at-the-moment Kerry, in a desperate scramble for votes.
“Sit down!” one crowd member yelled at another during Kerry’s speech Saturday. Smiling, Kerry saw an opportunity in the outburst.
“I’m looking for votes. I’ll do whatever you want me to,” he said, before bending over to take a seat in the middle of his speech. “Want me to sit down? I’ll sit down.”
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