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New Howard Dean In The Works

In response to plummeting poll numbers, former Democratic front-runner Howard Dean has decided to overhaul his image by presenting himself as a mature and dignified campaigner, the New York Times reports.

The newspaper, citing aides to the former Vermont governor, said Dean has also decided to abandon commercials attacking his Democratic opponents. The candidate will also move away from his signature issue - opposition to the war in Iraq - and focus on health care and the economy, two issues that carried great weight with Iowa voters. Dean finished a disappointing third in the primary.

Dean 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, late-night talk shows and in what could be a serious problem for the campaign — among New Hampshire voters.

Dean will need to move quickly. Sen. John Kerry, the winner of the Iowa primary, has surged into the lead in New Hampshire.

Kerry has replaced Dean as the Granite State front-runner in three polls: A Boston Globe-WBZ-TV tracking poll showed him leading Dean by 10 points, 31-21 percent. A Boston Herald-RKM poll reported the same result, while a Suffolk University-WDHD-TV tracking poll showed Kerry ahead of Dean by eight points, 27-19 percent. Former Gen. Wesley Clark took third place in the three polls with 15 or 16 percent.

Private campaign surveys also have Kerry ahead of Dean, whose numbers have fallen steadily for more than a week.

Looking beyond New Hampshire, Kerry also 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.

Meanwhile, the new Dean was on display today at a town hall meeting in Claremont, N.H., where - speaking in a hoarse voice - he calmly fielded questions from a friendly audience. He focused on domestic issues, and saved his criticism for President Bush rather than his Democratic rivals.

Political analysts and pollsters are watching to see if Monday night's shouted, fist-pumping speech becomes one of those famous presidential campaign moments etched indelibly in the public's mind. Some wags have already dubbed it the "I Have A Scream" speech since it was delivered on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Dean, Kerry and the five other Democrats in the race face a crucial test tonight in a televised debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester - 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 an important factor in helping them to make up their minds.

Kerry, the new front-runner, is going personal, working overtime to connect with voters while trying to counter his aloof image and capitalize on his success in Iowa. Kerry is also focusing his fire on President Bush rather than his Democratic rivals, the same tack he took successfully in Iowa.

At stop after stop on the campaign trail, Kerry has tried to identify with voters by sharing his own story.

He routinely mentions his bout with prostate cancer to try to persuade voters that he understands health care as more than a political issue. Now he talks about how he joined with his siblings to provide home health care for his ailing mother after a stroke, and then discusses the pain of losing both his parents in the past couple of years.

"What you're hearing is the real story that I want to talk about," Kerry says. "I don't want the words of politics to get in the way of seeing the problem."

Kerry has made a point of sticking around to take questions as long as voters are willing to ask, and New Hampshire voters are full of questions. That leaves him stuck at campaign events hours behind schedule and driving staffers to distraction.

Wesley Clark, who moved up in the polls by campaigning in New Hampshire while Kerry, Dean and N.C. Sen. John Edwards battled it out in Iowa, is emphasizing his military credentials on the campaign trail.

Clark is a retired four-star Army general and former NATO supreme allied commander.

"I'm a veteran, I've done leadership at the highest levels, I've worked with heads of state, I'm from the South, my mother was a secretary, and I can run well across this country - and I can beat George W. Bush," Clark said.

After Kerry won his surprise victory in Iowa, Clark suggested that the experience of a Navy lieutenant could not match that of a four-star general. He toned down such remarks Wednesday, telling reporters he wasn't trying to draw a distinction between his rank and Kerry's.

Clark advisers privately acknowledged the retired general's earlier comments about Kerry's military service may have gone too far and could turn out to be a costly blunder.

"We were both young officers in Vietnam. We just pursued different paths of public service," Clark said Wednesday.

Clark reserved his criticism for Mr. Bush, reminding veterans at a VFW hall that Mr. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier last May to declare the end to major military operations in Iraq.

"When we dress up in military attire, we don't have to go out and rent a flight suit," he said.

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