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Jockeying for the No. 2 position

Demo Derby keeps Howard Dean in the lead for the Democratic presidential nomination with Dick Gephardt just nosing out Wesley Clark for second.
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Demo Derby, MSNBC’s continuing assessment of who’s leading in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, takes its cue this week from a new poll in Michigan, a state that holds its primary next Feb. 7. The poll, conducted by the EPIC/MRA firm, shows Howard Dean running six percentage points ahead of retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark.

MICHIGAN HASN’T gotten the attention of early caucus and primary states Iowa and New Hampshire, but it could end up being crucial. Dean’s lead in Michigan shows he isn’t merely an Iowa-New Hampshire phenomenon.

And Demo Derby never overlooks Dean’s enormous fund-raising advantage over his rivals, which will allow him to compete simultaneously in several states.

Demo Derby keeps Dean in the lead, with Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt running second, due to his strong labor union ties and Midwestern roots which should give him an edge in Iowa, which holds its first-in-the-nation caucuses on Jan 19.

But neck-and-neck with Gephardt is Clark, on the strength of his celebrity and his growing support among Southern Democrats. Another sign that Clark is a genuine contender who is taken seriously by his competitors: During last Thursday’s debate on CNN, his rivals spent time attacking him for once being a Republican. Demo Derby remains cautiously skeptical about Clark’s candidacy since he has never before run for any office and may be at risk for self-inflicted wounds.

For the Democratic contenders who serve in Congress, a key vote is coming up this week or next on whether to approve the president’s $87 billion for the Iraq operation.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, running fourth in Demo Derby, leans toward opposing the $87 billion unless Democrats can add an amendment to it that would shift responsibility to the United Nations for political and humanitarian efforts.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, tried to rekindle interest in his candidacy this week by unveiling a new tax plan. “A married couple earning $50,000 could expect to save up $1,000 under my new tax proposal,” Lieberman says. He even offers tax cuts to couples earning $100,000 who he says “could expect to save up to $2,000” under his proposal.

Lieberman would impose a 5 percent surtax on married couples with incomes of about $250,000 and higher.