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Election 2004

Dean's surge has rivals scrambling

By Associated Press
Published December 14, 2003

HOPKINTON, N.H. - Wesley Clark had talked for nearly an hour about Iraq, nuclear energy, taxes, even windmills, fielding questions from prickly New Hampshire voters. Finally, he threw his hands in the air and smiled.

"You're a tough crowd to warm up!" the Democratic presidential candidate said as heads nodded in agreement throughout the cramped conference room. "I'm excited! What about you?"

The plea drew a polite cheer, but one Clark supporter gazed across the crowd of 75 and gave voice to a thought that spoke volumes about the rapidly shifting nomination fight: "Howard Dean doesn't have to work this hard."

Clark is one of five candidates with a reasonable chance of overtaking Dean when the primary season begins in mid January, along with Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sens. John Edwards, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman.

Party leaders are divided over the strength of Dean's surge. The debate suggests Dean has come close to achieving a goal he set for strategists months ago in the face of skepticism from the party establishment: create a perception of inevitability before the first votes are cast.

The task for Dean's rivals got harder last week when former Vice President Al Gore's endorsement gave Dean a stamp of approval from the ultimate insider.

The question may have become, then, if not Dean, then who?

Clark may have the best odds. He plans to raise more than $10-million in the October-December period, more than anybody but Dean. Polls show him gaining ground in early voting states, and his performance in campaigning is uneven but improving.

Several Democrats said Gephardt, a Missouri congressman, could be the anti-Dean if he wins Iowa's Jan. 19 caucuses and makes a stand in South Carolina. Support for Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, has fallen in New Hampshire, a state he cannot afford to lose.

But party leaders are starting to say nice things about Dean, a sign of his gathering political strength.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell called Lieberman the single most qualified candidate in the race. But he had high praise for Dean.

"I thought he was a fiscally conservative progressive on social issues as governor of Vermont. He was one of the most creative governors in the United States of America," Rendell said. "He'd make a great president."

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