Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin endorsed Howard Dean for president on Friday, calling him "the best person to beat George W. Bush" and giving a key boost to the embattled front-runner 10 days before the state's kick-off caucuses.
CBS News White House Correspondent Peter Maer says the Harkin endorsement is a big deal because the four-term senator has a powerful Democratic following in Iowa; just the kind of organization that can generate crucial turnout on caucus night on Jan. 19.
Dean and all of his rivals for the nomination had appealed to Harkin for his support, and the senator said publicly in recent days he was weighing whether to choose sides.
"I like and respect each one of them but for me one candidate rose to the top as our best shot to beat George W. Bush and to give Americans the opportunity to take our country back," Harkin told supporters in Des Moines, Iowa. "That person is Gov. Howard Dean."
The former governor, speaking from New Hampshire, welcomed the endorsement from Harkin, whom he called a street fighter. "We're going to need a fighter to take on George Bush," he told CNN.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Harkin praised Dean's straightforward approach to campaigning, saying it brought a breath of fresh air to the campaign trail. He said the former Vermont governor is "the Harry Truman of our generation. Howard Dean is really the kind of plain-spoken Democrat we need."
For days, Harkin had toyed with a decision. He decided Thursday night to endorse Dean, notifying him with a telephone call. Dean left the timing of the announcement to Harkin.
The timing of the endorsement was a political gift for Dean, who spent Friday struggling to prevent lasting damage from the impact of four-year-old comments on Canadian television in which he said the presidential caucus system was dominated by extremist interests.
"Four years ago, I didn't really understand the Iowa caucuses," Dean said Friday. "I wouldn't be where I am without the Iowa caucuses."
Dean said he thinks more of the caucuses now, and blasted his rivals for seizing on the remarks and other past statements and policies. "We've got to stop this gotcha stuff," he said.
The broadcast filmed in Montreal, "The Editors," covered U.S. and Canadian politics. NBC News reviewed 90 of Dean's appearances on the show since 1996 and first reported his comments about the caucuses Thursday night.
On the Canadian program, Dean said: "If you look at the caucuses system, they are dominated by the special interests, in both sides, in both parties. The special interests don't represent the centrist tendencies of the American people. They represent the extremes."
Dean rivals Dick Gephardt and John Edwards used the comments to praise Iowa and profess their admiration for the caucus system and its participants.
"To me, it's a cynical attempt to participate in the Iowa caucuses if that's the way he feels about it," Gephardt said. "I don't find that people are extreme in any way. They're very moderate, they're very sensible, very central."
Dean leads in the polls in Iowa, but caucuses demand a sophisticated organizational structure as well. Dean has been counting on an army of young volunteers to help deliver victory.
Gephardt and John Kerry are challenging Dean for first place in Iowa, according to private polls taken in recent days. Edwards is trailing.
Gephardt has flatly predicted he will win Iowa, and his aides concede he must. Kerry, long ago a national front-runner who has frittered away his lead, is looking to Iowa to reinvigorate his candidacy. Edwards hopes to survive until primaries on Feb. 3, including one in the state where he was born, South Carolina.
With its lead-off position on the election calendar, Iowa often takes on outsized importance in the race for a presidential nomination. A victory can lend the winner momentum going into the New Hampshire primary eight days later. A defeat, or a weak showing, can be hard to overcome.
In another interview on "The Editors," one taped in January 1998, Dean said it could be "good or bad" if the militant organization Hamas took control of the Palestinian leadership once Yasser Arafat had left the scene.
"The bad, of course, is that Hamas is a terrorist organization. However, if they have to run a quasi-state they may actually have to be more responsible and start negotiations. So who knows what will happen," he said.
On Friday, the Dean campaign issued a statement in which the former governor said he deplored terrorist groups, including Hamas. "In my presidency, the United States will remain firmly committed to its special, long-standing relationship with Israel, including providing the resources necessary to guarantee Israel's long-term defense and security," he said.