Analysis by Douglas Kiker of the CBS News Political Unit
In Iowa and New Hampshire – not to mention at least one national poll – Howard Dean's once seemingly insurmountable lead appears to be shrinking rapidly. As a result, the week's top story – who's going to finish second in the first two states of the 2004 contest and establish himself as the anti-Dean? – has shifted to whether Dean can hang onto his frontrunner status after a week of missteps, bad press and attacks from his Democratic rivals.
In Iowa, where Dean and Dick Gephardt are running neck and neck, the former Vermont governor had a politically schizophrenic Friday.
On Thursday, NBC News reported that in 2000, Dean said the Iowa caucuses – second only to ethanol subsidies and fried Oreos at the State Fair in Iowans' hearts – were "dominated by special interests" and "don't represent the centrist tendencies of the American people, they represent the extremes."
Dean was immediately sent reeling (and pandering) by the howls from his rivals and other Democrats in Iowa. By Friday morning, he was apologizing. "I support the Iowa caucus and I have already promised [Iowa Democratic chairman] Gordon Fischer that if elected, the Iowa caucus will be first again in 2008."
But just as things were looking their darkest for Dean, Sen. Tom Harkin announced his decision to endorse Dean. Harkin is the undisputed king of Iowa Democrats, and many say his endorsement of Al Gore over Bill Bradley was decisive in Gore's 2000 victory there. Dean is certainly hoping for the same in 2004.
No doubt the timing was influenced, in part at least, by the beating Dean had taken in the last 24 hours over his alleged anti-caucusism. A measure, perhaps, of the Dean camp's concern can be gleaned from the event's timing: Dean was in Vermont, not in Iowa with Harkin for the obligatory hands-over-their-heads TV shot, leaving the event with a distinct "hurry up and do it before it's too late" smell.
About ten seconds after Harkin spoke, Dean appeared on CNN and was far less apologetic than he was pre-endorsement. "If you want a Washington politician who's going to argue about who said what six or seven years ago, then you should vote for another candidate," said a newly confident Dean.
With Gephardt (who has longtime ties in the state and strong labor backing) nipping at Dean's heels, and John Kerry (with a well-organized Iowa team run by Mike Whouley) nipping at Gephardt's, Dean's position in Iowa could be vulnerable despite Harkin's endorsement, especially if Dean has another week like this one.
The fight in Iowa, meanwhile, seems to be leaving Dean's New Hampshire flank exposed, especially from Wesley Clark, who in the last week has moved into a solid second-place position in the Granite State, and within 15 points of Dean in the latest American Research Group tracking poll.
This sounds like a huge margin for Clark to overcome – and it is. But keep in mind that Clark was in third place and trailing Kerry exactly a week ago. In that poll, Dean was at 39 percent, followed by Kerry at 14 and Clark at 12. Today, Dean is at 35 percent, followed by Clark at 20 percent and Kerry at 13 percent.
That's a massive swing in New Hampshire in just seven days. Something positive is happening for Clark in New Hampshire, although it's perhaps too soon to tell if it's due to proximity – remember he's skipping Iowa and has spent much of the year so far in New Hampshire – or true appeal to voters. Regardless, with Clark roaming the Granite State practically by himself until Jan. 19, there's very little Dean will be able to do on the ground to slow Clark's mo'. (Although the Dean campaign will tell you that their ads have been blanketing the airwaves in New Hampshire and that matters as much as town halls and rallies.)
Nationally, too, Clark seems to be picking up steam. A CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll released earlier this week showed Clark within four points of Dean, at 20 percent to Dean's 24. Kerry's a distant third with 11 percent, and the rest of the field barely registered.
The political world waits breathlessly for the next good national poll to see if Clark's momentum is legit; but if New Hampshire is any guide, it very well could be.
The question remains: Is there enough time left for Clark in New Hampshire, and Gephardt and Kerry in Iowa to catch Dean? A week ago, the answer would have been "not likely," but as the last seven days has shown, what a difference a week can make.
By Douglas Kiker