With John Kerry starting to pull away from Howard Dean in New Hampshire, tonight's debate poses a crucial test for the former Vermont governor and the rest of the candidates still remaining in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Kerry, Dean and five other Democrats square off tonight at 8 p.m. ET in a televised debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester in what's considered the most important event ahead of Tuesday's primary.
Recent polls show the number of undecided voters range from 14 to 25 percent, and interviews suggest that the debate will be a key factor in helping them to make up their minds.
The debate is especially significant for Dean, who is trying to recover from the political damage inflicted by the impassioned concession speech he delivered after the Iowa caucus, but the image lingers on the Internet and late-night talk shows. Some wags have already dubbed it the "I Have a Scream" speech since it was delivered on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
A humbled Dean tried to put the matter to rest Thursday, chalking it up to the kind of passion that would make him a tough rival of President Bush.
"I didn't ever claim to be perfect. I am passionate," he said at a news conference after two town-hall meetings, each attended by several hundred people. "I don't think we can beat George Bush without some intensity."
Asked how he would regain momentum in New Hampshire, where he trails rival Kerry, Dean said with a shrug, "All I can do is be who I am."
Kerry, the surprise winner of this week's Iowa caucus, has surged into the lead in three New Hampshire polls: A Boston Globe-WBZ-TV tracking poll shows him leading Dean by 10 points, 31-21 percent; a Boston Herald-RKM poll reports the same result; and a Suffolk University-WDHD-TV tracking poll puts Kerry in front of Dean by eight points, 27-19 percent. Former Gen. Wesley Clark took third place in all three polls with 15 or 16 percent, followed by North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
Looking beyond New Hampshire, Kerry lined up a key endorsement in South Carolina, one of the big Feb. 3 primary states. CBS News has confirmed that Kerry will get the backing of veteran South Carolina Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings. An official announcement is expected later today.
In addition, Kerry said he had had private talks with Rep. Dick Gephardt, whose withdrawal from the campaign earlier this week created a wide-open race for delegates in his home state of Missouri.
Missouri and South Carolina are among seven states picking delegates in primaries and caucuses on Feb. 3, one week after New Hampshire's single-state contest.
"This isn't the only place there is a race," Kerry said Thursday from New Hampshire, where polls show him getting a large bounce on the heels of his startling win in Monday night's Iowa caucuses.
Speaking with reporters on his campaign bus, Kerry said he has spoken with Gephardt since the Missouri congressman dropped out of the race on Tuesday. Gephardt's backing would be an important factor in Missouri, one of seven states that will hold primaries on Feb. 3.
Since he arrived in New Hampshire, Kerry has kept to a relatively calm schedule, compared to the frantic pace he kept in Iowa, where he was the come-from-behind victor on Monday night. He said much of his time has been spent trying to catch up in other early states where some of his rivals may have an edge,
Kerry pulled much of his campaign staff from other states to focus on Iowa and New Hampshire, which votes on Tuesday. He's one of the few candidates not on the air with television commercials in the states that vote on Feb. 3. With momentum now in his corner, and upward movement in the polls, Kerry is scrambling to rebuild his campaign infrastructure in those states.
"Part of what I've been doing in the last few days is being on the phone to people in Missouri and elsewhere, talking to people and getting geared up," said Kerry. "There will be some things unfolding over the next couple of days that will reflect that."