By David Paul Kuhn, CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry has taken a commanding lead in two key states ahead of a seven-state primary showdown next Tuesday, according to a new poll.
A Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby tracking poll showed the Massachusetts senator with a 34-point lead in Missouri, and a 21-point lead in Arizona. Kerry was holding his own in two other important states: He trailed Sen. John Edwards by one-point in South Carolina and retired Gen. Wesley Clark by eight points in Oklahoma. Three other states – Delaware, North Dakota and New Mexico – are holding primary contests next Tuesday.
Separately, an Oklahoman poll showed the Massachusetts senator with a narrow 20-18 percent lead over Clark in Oklahoma, while a Fargo Forum poll put Kerry ahead of Clark 31-15 percent in North Dakota, a state that is holding a caucus.
The good news for the front-runner came hours after Kerry fended off attacks by rival Howard Dean at a televised Democratic debate in Greenville, S.C.
Reverting to his original role as the campaign's insurgent, Dean criticized Kerry for not being able to pass legislation on health care during his 20 years in the U.S. Senate.
"If you want a president who is going to get results, I suggest that you look at somebody who did get results in my state," Dean asserted, as he launched his first attacks on Kerry in a debate since the Massachusetts senator took over Dean's front-runner mantle with victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.
"One of the things you need to know as president is how things work in Congress," Kerry responded, in one of the evening's rare moments of confrontation.
The senator argued that passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, as well as AIDS legislation, illustrated his successful efforts on health care issues. Kerry didn't mention Dean by name, instead focusing on his resume and continuing his front-runner strategy of solely attacking President Bush.
Dean persisted, citing "102,000 kids with no health care" in the state as an example of Kerry and his colleagues not having been "very much help for the people of South Carolina."
But that was all the real drama the night saw. With the stakes extremely high for all those trailing Kerry, the Democratic hopefuls were diplomatic in their discourse. Even when Dean challenged Kerry directly, he said that he wanted to "give him another rebuttal opportunity." No candidate stood out on the issue most important to South Carolinians: the economy.
"Manufacturing jobs are the real issue here; the jobs are leaving," said Professor Adam Warber, a political scientist at Clemson University. "Several candidates spoke of it but they needed to be more specific on what they are going to do when they get into the office to increase job growth."
Broadcast nationally by MSNBC, the 90-minute debate at the Peace Center for the Performing Arts in Greenville, S.C., became largely a forum for assailing the president.
Dean, Kerry and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina called for an independent commission to investigate allegedly faulty prewar intelligence used by Mr. Bush as the basis for attacking Iraq.
Several candidates also vowed to compete hard to win the South.
"Historically we've never elected a Democrat president without winning at least five Southern states," Edwards said, a point the first-term senator and South Carolina native has emphasized throughout his campaign.
South Carolina is the first Democratic contest in a Southern state and therefore a test of Kerry's ability to transcend his Brahmin New England upbringing. Missouri, North Dakota, Arizona, New Mexico, Delaware and Oklahoma also have primaries or caucuses on Tuesday.
Moderator Tom Brokaw asked Kerry about three New Hampshire speeches in which "it appears that you were kissing off this region." The NBC anchor suggested that Kerry had changed his tune after veteran South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings endorsed him last week.
"I don't believe that Sen. Fritz Hollings or Congressman Jim Clyburn have endorsed me because I don't believe that we can win the South," Kerry responded. Again bringing the dialogue back to President Bush, he argued that the president did not invade Iraq as a "last resort."
Former Gen. Wesley Clark said the same, adding that officials in the Pentagon told him weeks after the attacks of Sept.11, 2001, that the White House was going to use this to justify an attack on Iraq, whether or not Saddam Hussein was involved.
With Dean having suspended his advertising to reconfigure his campaign, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman trailing heavily in every state and a South Carolina win essential for Edwards to remain a viable candidate, their relative restraint in confronting Kerry allowed the front-runner to leave the debate unscathed.
"Kerry comes out of tonight still with the momentum," said Mark Schulman, a non-partisan independent pollster. Even when he was attacked by Dean, Schulman says that because Kerry did not respond directly, he was able to maintain his presidential demeanor.
"All the polls have shown that one basis of the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary victories by Kerry was that he is seen as the toughest contender against Bush, as presidential," Schulman continued.
"Everybody but Kerry needed to catch fire, do something or say something that would change the voter's minds and my sense was that they didn't."