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Demo Derby: Gephardt-Dean deadlock in Iowa's latest ranking in the Demo Derby shows Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt grappling with Howard Dean for the win in Iowa.
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It’s countdown time — just 39 days until the Wisconsin primary! Eh, how’s that again?

So you thought the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary were the all-important kickoff contests? Yes, they are, but Demo Derby is thinking as a good chess player does: three or four moves ahead.

The Democratic contenders who do well, or in that enchanting phrase, “better than expected,” in Iowa on Jan. 19 and in New Hampshire on Jan. 27 must leap to the next set of contests.

The outcome in Iowa and New Hampshire will determine how voters in the February round of contests view the contenders.

If this turns out to be a war of attrition, the survivors must be ready to fight in Michigan on Feb. 7 and Wisconsin on Feb. 17. Both states have large numbers of labor union voters, progressive good-government traditions, and major universities.

Last big role was in 1988
And voters in those states haven’t had a chance to play a starring role in choosing a Democratic nominee at least since 1988 when Jesse Jackson scored an upset win over Mike Dukakis in Michigan’s caucuses.

Our latest ranking shows Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt grappling with Howard Dean for the win in Iowa.

A new Research 2000 Iowa Poll conducted this week for Des Moines television station KCCI has Dean with 29 percent and Gephardt with 25 percent. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has 18 percent and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards 8 percent, with the rest of the field trailing badly. Thirteen percent of those interviewed remained undecided, with little more than a week to go until the caucuses.

Meanwhile, retired Gen. Wesley Clark is gaining ground on Dean. Clark has sidestepped Iowa’s caucuses, so he goes into a partial news media eclipse over the next several days as the press horde treks across Iowa.

But in a New Hampshire tracking poll conducted by the American Research Group, Clark has gained ground in recent days. In ARC’s Jan. 5-Jan. 7 sampling, Clark stands at 18 percent, well behind Dean who collects 35 percent. Clark has edged ahead of Kerry, who ARC’s poll has at 12 percent.

Clark boosters are also touting the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of 418 Democrats across the nation released Wednesday that shows Clark at 20 percent to Dean’s 24 percent, within the poll’s margin of error.

But use caution in interpreting these results. First, a national poll does not have the same value as state polls in states where primaries are taking place. A nationwide sample of 418 Democratic voters is too small to reflect sentiment in the crucial half-dozen early primary states (New Hampshire, Arizona, Michigan, etc.) where the contest is likely to be decided.

Also recall that in the same CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll Clark had a nine-point lead over Dean back in late September.

Middle-class taxes now a hot issue
As Dean does hand-to-hand combat in Iowa with Kerry and Gephardt, raising taxes on middle-class workers has boiled into a hot issue. Dean has claimed for months that “there was no middle-class tax cut,” his way of arguing that the benefits of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for many people were offset by increases in local property taxes, state university tuition, etc.

But despite his claim that “there was no middle-class tax cut,” Dean wants to repeal it. He would rescind both the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.

According to CCH, a non-partisan tax consulting firm, a married couple with an income of $50,000 and two children under age 17, got a $1,133 tax cut from the tax bill passed by Congress last year. Dean’s rivals are urging such couples to ask, “Would you be better off under Howard Dean than you are now?”

In September and again in recent days, Dean and his aides have said he’d find some way to provide “middle-class tax fairness” and a more equitable tax code — but he’d still raise income taxes on those who got tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.

This week in a debate on National Public Radio, he said, “Ultimately we will have a program of tax fairness for middle-class people.”

Dean has offered a few ideas on the tax-cut aspect of “fairness,” such as reducing Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes for low- and middle-income workers.