With the stakes high and the race extremely tight just four days before the Iowa caucus, Democratic presidential candidates on Thursday hammered away on their campaign themes — and at each other.
As polls showed the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire narrowing, some candidates are going negative, with Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt suggesting that Howard Dean is a fake, and Dean telling voters his rivals have grown desperate.
"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, the former Vermont governor, 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.
For weeks, Dean and Gephardt have wrestled for the lead in Iowa, where voters go to caucus on Monday. But now the two men face a surge by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and a stuff challenge from North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
Kerry, 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. Howard Dean and Gephardt, who have fought fiercely for the lead in Iowa, follow with 21 percent. 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.
In New Hampshire, a tracking poll by American Research Group showed Dean at 29 percent, just five points ahead of Clark. Kerry was in third place with 15 perent. Just three days ago, Dean led Clark by 17 points in the ARG poll.
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.
The Democratic field narrowed slightly Thursday with former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun bowed out of the race to endorse Dean. In a joint appearance in Carroll, Iowa, Braun said "Gov. Dean has the energy to inspire the American people, to break the cocoon of fear that envelopes us and empowers President Bush and his entourage from the extreme right-wing."
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.
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.
John 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.
Mr. 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 the former president, saying Mr. Clinton 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 Mr. Clinton.
Lieberman was one of the first Democrats in Congress in 1998 to denounce Mr. Clinton's "disgraceful behavior" with intern Monica Lewinsky.
Yet, Lieberman is styling himself as the true inheritor of the Clinton legacy, even going this week to the spot where Mr. 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 Mr. 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."