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Crucial Tuesday: Soon it'll be win or withdraw

National | PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS: With party primaries coming fast and furious, and with an undisputed front-runner in John Kerry, the election results will soon be beyond spin. The only option: win

Issue: "Reagan: Providential president," Feb. 7, 2004

John Kerry kept his momentum up. Joseph Lieberman kept his chin up. And Howard Dean kept his jacket on.

Those were a few of the headlines on Jan. 27, as Sen. Kerry scored a solid victory in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary, securing his position as the clear Democratic front-runner after months as little more than a statistical footnote.

Sen. Kerry captured 39 percent of the vote in the Granite State, while Dr. Dean had to settle for a distant second, at 26 percent. It was a bitter loss for the former Vermont governor, who spent the better part of two years on the ground and more than $3 million on the airwaves of New Hampshire. By mid-January he still had a 17-point lead in the polls, until an embarrassing third-place finish in Iowa-and a still more embarrassing post-caucus pep rally-sent his campaign into a free fall.

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"The people of New Hampshire have allowed our campaign to regain its momentum and I am very grateful," a more restrained, fully outfitted Dr. Dean told a cheering crowd of campaign workers in Manchester. "Stand with us until the very end, which is Jan. 20, 2005."

Gen. Wesley Clark, who had hoped to position himself as the grown-up alternative to the volatile Dr. Dean, seemed to benefit little from his opponent's faltering campaign. Despite skipping Iowa to focus on New Hampshire, Gen. Clark finished far back in third place, only a few hundred votes ahead of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who spent relatively little time or money in the state. The news was even worse for Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman: Like Gen. Clark, he focused his resources on New Hampshire, yet managed to poll only in the single digits.

Still, Sen. Lieberman vowed to take his more moderate Democratic message to the Southern and Western states that will vote on Feb. 3. "I did better than expected. I got a good start," he told the Associated Press after his fifth-place finish. "I stood for something that was different in this field, in this race. And we're carrying that cause on to next week's primaries."

As for the leader, despite his 2-for-2 record in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sen. Kerry said he would continue to stump for votes like the underdog. He planned to campaign personally in each of the Feb. 3 primary states, flying first to Missouri, where 74 delegates are up for grabs following the withdrawal of favorite son Richard Gephardt from the race.

Other candidates made similar, on-the-fly schedule adjustments, jetting off to states where they seemed to have the best chance of winning. But the time for hand-shaking and speech-making clearly was over: With less than a week to reach millions of voters from South Carolina to New Mexico, face time was suddenly less important than air time.

Thanks to a fresh infusion of cash after his Iowa upset, Sen. Kerry the day after the New Hampshire primary hit the airwaves in all seven states, giving him bragging rights as the only candidate running a truly national campaign. The other hopefuls had to be more discriminating. By skipping Iowa, Gen. Clark saved enough cash to run ads in five of the seven states, while Sen. Lieberman was on the air in four. John Edwards was beaming his message into three states but concentrating on South Carolina, which even he conceded he must win to stay in the race.

Dr. Dean, meanwhile, briefly pulled his ads altogether and huddled with advisers to re-tool his campaign. Although he has raised more than $40 million and boasts a large cadre of enthusiastic volunteers, what he needed most was a solid win to show he remains a viable candidate. With the pressure mounting, some advisers reportedly suggested he should cherry-pick his primaries, campaigning only where he had the best chance of winning. But such a strategy would highlight Dr. Dean's regional weaknesses at a time when most Democratic voters say their No. 1 priority is choosing an "electable" nominee-a pragmatic choice who can defeat President Bush in November.

In the end, Dr. Dean vowed to compete in all seven of the Feb. 3 contests-and then some. While the first big batch of primaries is concentrated in the conservative South and Southwest, Dr. Dean could find more of his liberal soulmates in Michigan and Washington, which hold their caucuses on Feb. 7.

Still, coming up winless on Crucial Tuesday would likely prove fatal to Dr. Dean's bid for the White House. And the situation is equally dire for his challengers: Feb. 3 is the day to put up or shut up, win or withdraw. For all the attention lavished on New Hampshire, the tiny state awarded only 22 delegates to the national convention. By contrast, the next round of voting will award 269 delegates, more than 12 percent of the total needed to clinch the nomination. A win anywhere in the country would qualify as a moral victory, but three states will receive the most attention:

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