Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose Internet-driven campaign and anti-war rhetoric have suddenly made him the man to beat, is bracing for attacks from rivals seeking to slow his momentum.
"I think there will be some fireworks," said New Mexico's Democratic governor, Bill Richardson, who is co-hosting Thursday's debate.
He said Democrats would be better off if candidates focus their ire on President Bush, not each other, but he held out little hope for that.
"This is the opening bell of the campaign. They'll come out swinging," said Richardson, who also has been tapped to chair the Democratic National Convention in Boston next July.
The 8 p.m. EDT debate will be broadcast on PBS and Univision with simultaneous Spanish translation, a nod to the rising influence of Hispanic voters. New Mexico has a large Hispanic population — about 42 percent — and a Hispanic governor in Richardson.
Interviewed in his Santa Fe office, Richardson said Dean is the candidate doing the best among New Mexico's Hispanic activists. He said the progress became evident a few weeks ago as Dean's stock rose nationally.
Dean has shaken up the presidential race, raising more money than any of his contender between April and June while drawing to a tie in Iowa polls and opening a wide lead in New Hampshire — two states with critical early elections.
His surge rocked the campaign of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who had cast himself as the early front-runner. The Massachusetts lawmaker is counting on a victory in neighboring New Hampshire to propel him to the nomination.
Dean also is a major threat to Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who acknowledges he can't win the primary fight unless he finishes first in Iowa.
The debate comes just a week before leaders of two major unions plan to hear from the candidates and consider endorsements that Kerry and Gephardt had coveted.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, whose president, Gerald McEntee, signaled his favor with Kerry in the spring, is taking a second look at the field to judge the strength of Dean's surge and the extent of Kerry's political woes, according to labor officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Service Employees International Union, with 1.6 million members, is being heavily courted by Dean's campaign in advance of next week's meetings.
Kerry's advisers have been divided over whether to attack Dean. Some fear the former Vermont governor will pull away with the nomination unless he is confronted; others worry that aggressive tactics would make Kerry look mean while firing up Dean's backers.
Aides said the large field and restrictive debate format may limit Kerry's ability to take on Dean.
Other campaigns faced similar challenges.
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina rehearsed extensively, even having aides stand in for his rivals during mock debates.
Gephardt hoped to score points on his opposition to trade pacts endorsed by his opponents.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut hoped to flesh out his argument that Dean cannot defeat President Bush. "I worry that he cannot win," he said Sunday while accusing Dean of flip-flopping on policies.
Also on Sunday, Kerry said Dean "has zero experience in international affairs." He criticized Dean and Gephardt for seeking to repeal all the Bush tax cuts, including some that benefit the middle class.
Kerry has offered a package of middle-class tax cuts while proposing to repeal only portions of the president's tax cuts that favor the rich.
Addressing 200 supporters at a Santa Fe coffee shop Wednesday night, Dean said voters will give up tax cuts if the money is invested wisely.
"If you undo President Bush's tax cuts, you can balance the budget and you can reform health care," he said.
To those who question his foreign policy credentials, Dean said he would not shy from going to war to protect America's interests but he said Saddam Hussein could have been contained without force. Dean's opposition to the Iraq war helped ignite his campaign.
His position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might cause some problems in the Jewish community, a key Democratic constituency. Dean told the crowd there are an "enormous number" of Israeli settlements that must go.
"It's not our place to take sides" in the conflict, he said.
Dean and Gephardt planned to begin their debate day by meeting with 10 Texas lawmakers who have taken refuge here to block action on a Republican redistricting plan in Austin.