What was once a two-man race for victory in the Iowa caucus appeared on Thursday to have become a four-candidate dash to the finish line four days away.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, whose campaign seemed moribund only weeks ago, has made a late surge and now leads the pack with 22 percent in the latest Zogby poll. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, who have fought fiercely for the lead in Iowa, follow with 21 percent. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards had 17 percent.
But the gaps between the candidates were statistically negligible, given the poll's 4.5-point margin of effort.
And the race is extremely fluid: The Los Angeles Times reports that surveys show more than a third of voters say they are undecided or at least willing to change their minds.
The Democratic field narrowed slightly Thursday with former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun bowing out of the race to endorse Dean. Braun never polled outside the single-digits, but given the tightness of the race it was unclear if her support would boost Dean.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and retired Gen. Wesley Clark are not competing in Iowa. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich trails the frontrunners in all surveys.
The stakes in the Jan. 19 caucus were high for all candidates, particularly Dean and Gephardt. Dean has been the frontrunner for months, but his numbers in both Iowa and New Hampshire are sagging. Iowa is considered a must-win for Gephardt, who hails from a neighboring state and won the caucus in 1988.
Kerry is hoping a solid showing in Iowa will revive his hopes for New Hampshire's Jan. 27 primary, where a candidate from Massachusetts faces pressure to do well. Edwards wants a boost in Iowa to help him in New Hampshire, but also in South Carolina on Feb. 3.
Their political lives in the balance, the candidates are going negative, with Gephardt suggesting that Dean is a fake and Dean accusing Clark of being a closet Republican.
"To me, there is no room for the cynical politics of manufactured anger and false conviction," said Gephardt. "I believe in standing for something."
Dean said Gephardt's accusations are a "sad commentary" on the state of his campaign.
"Let's not kid ourselves about this, these guys are looking at the end of their careers if I win and they're going to do anything they can to stop me," Dean told Iowa Public Television on Wednesday after campaigning in New Hampshire.
Dean singled out Clark, who is rising in the New Hampshire polls, for additional criticism of not being loyal to the Democratic Party. He noted that Clark has said he voted for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and has helped raise money for Republicans.
"I do not think somebody ought to run in the Democratic primary and then make the general election the Republican primary between two Republicans," Dean said to applause from the crowd.
Clark told reporters after a national security speech in New Hampshire, "I'm a Democrat."
A spokesman, Bill Buck, said Dean's comment "smacks of old-time negative politics" that will turn off voters. "If Howard Dean wonders why his poll numbers are dropping in New Hampshire, he should look in the mirror," Buck said.
In addition to attacking one another, Dean and Gephardt are going back to bedrock as they scratch for victory, with Dean emphasizing his opposition to the Iraq war and Gephardt focusing on economic issues.
"Dick Gephardt wrote the resolution to authorize war" against Iraq, Dean says in a new television commercial designed to energize his Iowa faithful.
Gephardt would much rather talk about pocketbook issues as he tries to solidify his blue-collar base.
"John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Howard Dean and Wesley Clark, who all supported NAFTA, are now acting like they fought against it. And John Edwards supported the China deal," he said Wednesday, referring to trade agreements that the AFL-CIO opposed and he fought in Congress as unfair to American workers.
Edwards, meanwhile, is closing the campaign with a positive ad, the more traditional approach. "I think this is about something much bigger than these petty snipings that are going on," Edwards says in the spot.
Candidates are also dropping the golden name "Bill Clinton," hoping to scoop up the support of voters who'd like nothing more than a Clinton-era economic comeback and other good things associated with his presidency.
Clinton has studiously avoided endorsing any of the Democrats running for the White House, but he has been advising some of them.
The campaign of fellow Arkansan Clark has trumpeted his connection with Clinton, saying the former president advises him on a regular basis, reviews position papers, analyzes polling data and even helped steer a major donor to Clark.
Other contenders are quick to say they, too, are getting on the horn with Clinton.
Lieberman was one of the first Democrats in Congress in 1998 to denounce Clinton's "disgraceful behavior" with intern Monica Lewinsky.
Yet, Lieberman is styling himself as the true inheritor of Clinton's legacy, even going this week to the spot where Clinton made his 1992 "last dog dies" speech in Dover, N.H. — turning a corner in a primary campaign that was faltering over questions about womanizing and draft-dodging.
"Back then, the middle class was taking a pounding," Lieberman said, reaching for Clinton's centrist banner. "They felt deserted. And Bill Clinton stood up and promised, 'I'll be here for you until the last dog dies.'
"Twelve years and one Bush later, that's our challenge again today."