Less than two weeks before the crucial Iowa caucuses, Democratic presidential candidates are intensifying their efforts to win — even if they don't come in first.
Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina are pushing hard for solid finishes close behind, if not ahead of, frontrunners Howard Dean and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri.
The New York Times reports that Kerry and Edwards are eyeing third place, or even a strong fourth place finish, as a good platform for the primaries that follow Iowa's Jan. 19 caucuses.
Kerry faces a key test only eight days later in New Hampshire. Edwards is looking ahead to South Carolina's Feb. 3 vote.
Meanwhile, a CNN/USA Today Gallup poll of 1,028 people nationwide shows Dean losing some of his lead to retired Gen. Wesley Clark. Kerry is also seen gaining.
Kerry has highlighted Dean's proposal to roll back President Bush's tax cuts. In a debate Tuesday, he said the move would "increase the burden on middle-class Americans."
"Respectfully, what John just said is hogwash," Dean shot back.
Gephardt, who also came under fire for wanting to reverse Mr. Bush's tax cuts, said his proposal for universal health care was worth $3,000 per household, more than most people got in tax cuts.
For his part, Dean is trying to solidify the impression that he is the de facto nominee. He trumpeted his endorsements from the two Democrats who competed for the nod in 2000, including former Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley.
"If I can begin to bridge the gap between Bill Bradley and Al Gore and bring in people who have served long periods of time in Washington and all the enthusiastic supporters we have, then I think I may be the right candidate to beat George Bush," Dean said.
Gephardt repeated his assertion that Dean, during the 1990s, favored an effort by congressional Republicans to scale back Medicare. He also said Dean favored free trade deals that have shipped jobs overseas.
Dean once spoke in favor of a GOP plan to slow the growth of Medicare spending by some $270 billion over seven years. He did not propose a cut.
"I will not cut Medicare, period. I will not cut Medicare, Dick, I want to make that clear," said Dean. "We'll talk about trade later."
Edwards skipped the debate and campaigned throughout the state, pushing his education proposals.
The focus on domestic issues has not forced the Iraq war out of the spotlight.
Dean said although he opposed the war to begin with, it would be irresponsible now to set a deadline for withdrawal. "If we pull out precipitously, or if we give over the Iraqi government to the Iraqis precipitously, and al Qaeda establishes a foothold in Iraq, we have a much more serious problem in terms of our defense than we did before," he said.
Meanwhile, Democratic insiders have given Dean his first lead in the chase for delegates needed to capture the party's presidential nomination, according to an Associated Press survey.
In the first "ballots" cast of the 2004 race, the former Vermont governor has endorsements or pledges of support from 80 Democratic "superdelegates" — elected officials and other party officials who will help select a nominee at this July's convention.
Gephardt has the backing of 57 superdelegates. Kerry has the support of 50.
Among the remaining candidates, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut has 25 superdelegates, while Clark has 22. Edwards of North Carolina has 15.
The long-shot hopefuls — Al Sharpton (3), Carol Moseley Braun (3) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio (2) — were in single digits.
One Democratic superdelegate has endorsed President Bush.