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Did Dean peak way too early?

"Did Dean peak way too early?" Continued...

Issue: "Iraq: The other caucuses," Jan. 31, 2004

"I used to be the front-runner when I went out to Iowa, but I'm not the front-runner any more," a chastened Dr. Dean announced as he arrived in New Hampshire at 3:30 a.m., hours after the conclusion of the Iowa caucuses. "But New Hampshire has a great tradition of supporting the underdog. So guess what. Let's go get them."

The fighting words may have been warranted. With $40 million to his credit, Dr. Dean has raised far more money than any of his rivals, and he boasts one of the only truly national organizations. He knows well that other front-runners have fared badly in Iowa, only to come back and win the ultimate prize. In 1988, for instance, both George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis finished third in the caucuses, then regrouped to win their respective nominations.

For a moment, however, Sens. Kerry and Edwards could both lay claim to the sort of momentum that attracts big-money donors and undecided voters. After polling in the single digits for much of the race, the two senators surprised almost everyone with their one-two finish.

Sen. Kerry, still hoarse after weeks of almost nonstop campaigning, dubbed himself the "Comeback Kerry," while Sen. Edwards flew immediately to Portsmouth, N.H., for a pre-dawn rally. "Can you feel it?" he asked cheering supporters in the New England cold. "The people of New Hampshire are going to feel it a week from tonight. We're going to sweep across the country and we're going to do it without the negative politics of cynicism."

In New Hampshire, the three candidates who got their tickets out of Iowa will face two new contenders for the first time. Both Gen. Wesley Clark and Sen. Joseph Lieberman passed on the first caucus in order to focus on the first primary. Sen. Lieberman, who has tailored his campaign to more centrist Democrats, seemed heartened by the fall of the former front-runner, a hero of his party's left wing.

"Tomorrow morning, we're going to welcome back those other candidates from Iowa," he told several hundred supporters, even as Iowa voters were making their way to the caucuses. "We're ready! We're ready to fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party."

Gen. Clark, meanwhile, had to scramble to switch his focus immediately from Dr. Dean to Sen. Kerry, with whom he has been locked in a close race for second place in New Hampshire. The retired general has tried for months to position himself to take advantage of any anti-Dean backlash, but the Kerry win in Iowa quickly made that strategy obsolete. He suddenly found himself going head to head with another decorated military man-one who also happened to have decades of government experience.

"You think of foreign policy, it's like major-league baseball," Gen. Clark told CNN. "I'm the only person who has ever played it. I've negotiated peace agreements. I've won a war [in Kosovo].... I'm not worried about John Kerry or anybody else. He's a lieutenant and I'm a general."

Regardless of who pulls rank on Jan. 27, the race will still be far from over. Even another win by Sen. Kerry will hardly seal the deal for him, since he remains less popular in Southern and Western states, where primaries begin on Feb. 2. The general, the lieutenant, and the rest of the field are all but guaranteed a long, arduous march to the convention-with the possibility that the eventual winner could be mortally wounded by "friendly" fire.

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