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Dems Head Down The Stretch

John Kerry has mortgaged his home. Joe Lieberman has rented an apartment in New Hampshire. And Howard Dean has called on party leaders to halt attacks against his front-running campaign.

If the moves made by Democrats running for president don't indicate the race is entering a crucial phase, the calendar does: As of Monday, only 14 days remained until the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, and only 22 days were left before the New Hampshire primaries.

Those contests will usher in a front-loaded primary season in which, within two months, voters in 22 states — including California, Georgia, Illinois, New York, Ohio and South Carolina — will make their picks for the Democratic ticket.

But as the race enters the New Year, the themes are old news. Former Vermont governor Dean is in front but battling not only his Democratic rivals but also the impression that he is unelectable.

Both Time and Newsweek feature Dean as their cover stories this week, but the news mag's angles are double-edged. Time asks "Who is the real Howard Dean?" while Newsweek probes "The Dean Dilemma."

The dilemma Dean poses is that he seems poised to grab the nomination but is perceived as too liberal to win a general election where national security will likely be a top issue.

Dean supports the death penalty and has a strong record on gun rights, but has been outspoken in his opposition to the war in Iraq.

If Dean secures the Democratic top slot, party operatives fear, he is doomed to the fate of Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale or George McGovern: a drubbing in November.

But if Dean fails to wrap up the nomination quickly, the crowded field could generate a lengthy, bruising campaign. A drawn-out primary fight could deplete party resources and taint the eventual nominee.

A preview of that fight came Sunday during a feisty, first debate of the election year. Dean drew fire from fellow Democrats on Sunday over trade, terror and taxes, then calmly dismissed his rivals as "co-opted by the agenda of George Bush."

"I opposed the Iraq war when everyone else up here was for it," he said.

Lieberman was the first to attack, ridiculing Dean for saying that the capture of Saddam Hussein had not made America safer.

"I don't know how anybody could say that we're not safer with a homicidal maniac, a brutal dictator, an enemy of the United States, a supporter of terrorism, a murderer of hundreds of thousands of his own people ... in prison instead of in power," he said.

Lieberman went on the offensive shortly after Dean noted that 23 U.S. troops have been killed since Saddam's capture last month, and "for the first time American fighter jets (are) escorting commercial airlines" out of security concerns.

Dean said instead of spending $160 billion in Iraq, the Bush administration "should have ... followed up trying to get Osama Bin Laden."

"We need a concentrated attack on al Qaeda," he said of the organization blamed for the terrorist attacks on the United States Sept. 11, 2001.

National security was only one area where rivals tried to wound Dean, says CBS News Reporter Tali Aronsky.

Lieberman suggested that Dean is too liberal to win a national race, and asked Dean to unseal his gubernatorial records. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said Dean "has no plan to reduce the tax burden on middle class families," and argued Dean has slim chances of winning the South. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri said he had supported trade bills that led to the loss of manufacturing jobs overseas. Kerry honed in on Dean's lack of foreign policy experience.

At one point, Dean — who has faulted his rivals for damaging Democrats' chances in 2004 with increasingly bitter assaults on his campaign, asked "Who of you will vigorously support the candidate who wins the Democratic nomination?"

All the candidates raised their hands. Gephardt later thanked Dean for rallying the candidates around Gephardt's upcoming nomination.

A CBS News poll of 799 adults conducted Dec. 22-23 illustrates Dean's hold on first place as well as the deep doubts about his long-term prospects. He leads the pack with 16 percent of Democratic voters, but that was down from 23 percent a week before. And Dean loses a hypothetical match-up with President Bush by a 55-35 margin.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, whose campaign has emphasized the foreign policy credentials that many say Dean lacks, is seen creeping up, in second place with 10 percent support.

Clark is also drawing close to Dean in the race for campaign cash. When final numbers emerge, Dean was expected to pull in more than $14 million in the final quarter of 2003, but Clark will have raised between $10 million and $12 million in the fourth quarter.

Clark will get an additional bump after the new year with an estimated $3.7 million worth of federal matching money, while Dean has declined public funds.

Gephardt told The Associated Press in an interview that he expects to raise about the same amount as in the third quarter when he took in about $3.8 million. In the first three quarters, he raised a total of $13.9 million, and his campaign expects more than $3 million in federal matching funds next year.

Kerry also has declined federal funds. The remaining six candidates will all receive federal matching funds after Jan. 1.

Kerry has raised more than $20 million for the year, though that fund raising slowed in the final quarter.

His campaign expects in the fourth quarter to have raised less than the $4 million collected in the previous quarter. Kerry also is lending the campaign $6.4 million based on a mortgage of his share of his family's home in Boston.

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