Union Tribune

January 27, 2004

Democrats scour N.H. for support in 11th hour

By FINLAY LEWIS and OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

NASHUA, N.H. The Democratic candidates sprinted across New Hampshire yesterday in a final burst of campaigning, seeking to distinguish themselves as the best suited to defeat President Bush in November.

Making their final arguments before today's presidential primary, the nation's first, the candidates skewered Bush while cautiously criticizing each other.

They blamed Bush for presiding over a jobless economic recovery, failing to ease middle class concerns about affordable health care, and alienating America's allies by invading Iraq without securing United Nations support.

Their closing campaign pitches were framed by claims that their stands on the issues made them the strongest candidates to take on Bush. Finding a candidate who can defeat the incumbent Republican has become a threshold issue for many Democratic voters in New Hampshire, overshadowing other issues.

Airing themes that have been central to their campaigns, the candidates yesterday sought to sway a large number of apparently undecided and independent voters. Most polls continued to show Sen. John Kerry of neighboring Massachusetts with double-digit leads over former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Pollsters cautioned that in addition to undecided voters, the historic unpredictability of voters not registered with a political party who can vote in the primary still makes the race volatile right up until the polls open today.

At a noontime rally in downtown Manchester, Dean appealed to fence-sitters and independent voters by stressing his managerial credentials from his years as governor of Vermont.

"If you're an undecided voter, I'd like your vote because I've balanced budgets," Dean said. "I'm conservative about money, and I'm socially progressive."

Dean, the presumed front-runner in the race until Kerry's surprising victory last week in the Iowa caucuses, also renewed his criticism of Kerry's vote authorizing Bush to invade Iraq. Kerry largely ignored his opponents except to declare himself stronger on abortion rights than any of his rivals.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark sought votes in all 10 of New Hampshire's counties, beginning his day with a 6:30 a.m. visit in sub-zero weather to a truck stop in Lebanon. His trek was to end near midnight in the arctic chill of Dixville Notch, not far from the Canadian border where tradition dictates that the first votes will be cast.

Clark, who bypassed the Iowa caucuses to concentrate on New Hampshire, pointed to his 34 years in the Army as a decorated and wounded combat officer as evidence that he could rally the country to a higher standard of leadership. As president, Clark promised to forge cooperative ties with America's allies and make realistic appraisals of the cost of going to war.

"I'm not a Washington insider, I'm an outsider," he said in a hoarse voice to a boisterous crowd on the steps of Nashua City Hall. "I'm not part of the problem. I've never taken money from lobbyists. I've never cut a deal for votes."

Late polls show Clark locked in a close struggle with Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina for third place. Both are hoping that New Hampshire voters will give them a strong send-off tomorrow morning when the candidates move to a much larger field for next Tuesday's primaries and caucuses in seven states, including South Carolina and Missouri.

Edwards, gearing up for the battle on the friendly turf of South Carolina, where he was born, appeared to surge this week after his surprise second-place finish in Iowa. He stuck to a core message depicting a nation divided along class lines with the wealthy and powerful prospering from an economy tilted in their favor by the Bush administration's tax breaks.

Across southern New Hampshire yesterday, Edwards argued that everybody else has to struggle with an economy, a health care system and an educational structure that is stacked against them, thanks in part to the power of corporate lobbyists.

Like several of the other candidates, Kerry also has picked up on the theme of attacking "special interests" who use campaign contributions to curry favor with the administration and with Republicans who control Congress.

Left unmentioned by the candidates were the contributions and manpower made available to their campaigns by such allies as organized labor and major environmental groups.

Kerry at several stops touted his endorsement recently by the League of Conservation Voters as proof he is pro-environment. He pledged to reverse Bush administration policies that he says have endangered several decades of gains in the fight to clean up the nation's air and water.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut yesterday argued that his record as a moderate to conservative Democrat would give him a greater advantage than his rivals against Bush. Most polls show Lieberman lagging, even though he took up residence in Manchester and bypassed the Iowa caucuses to focus on New Hampshire.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio also continued to campaign in the state, emphasizing his determination to reverse trade policies that he says have cost New Hampshire thousands of jobs.

State and party officials said they expect a record Democratic primary turnout of 184,000 when voters head for the polls, although they were keeping a wary eye on the possibility of snow developing late in the day.

Secretary of State William Gardner attributed the intense interest in the primary to the state's lagging economic recovery, noting that a similar situation prevailed during the 1992 Democratic primary when the current record of 170,000 voters went to the polls.