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Rather: Watch Edwards

CBS News Anchor Dan Rather took a break from anchoring the Evening News to do a little political punditry. And he sees a rise in N.C. Sen. John Edwards' political fortunes.

The press herd has thundered toward Kerry. With good reason: New England regional favorite Senator John Kerry, from neighboring Massachusetts, roared into New Hampshire fueled by his hard-won, upset first-place showing in Iowa. The herd loves a frontrunner so, true to form, hoof beats abound around Kerry now.

By any objective analysis, Kerry is the candidate of the moment. He deserves to be. He earned it. But if you're looking for the candidate of the next moment, you might want to keep your eyes on Senator John Edwards.

Edwards' showing in Iowa was at least as impressive as Kerry's; perhaps more so, when one considers that Edwards had less money, less organization, and came from further back in the polls.

Now, reports from various experienced political observers in widely separate sections of New Hampshire report that Edwards's popularity seems to be growing. This has not, at least not yet, been reflected by any big jump in the polls. Stay tuned and watch closely, though, because an Edwards surge may soon materialize.

Retired General Wesley Clark was perceived as flat in the polls before the candidates' joint appearance — called a "debate" — Thursday night. Given what is widely considered to have been Clark's lackluster appearance in that event, his poll numbers could very well flatten out even more or suffer an outright drop.

Some independent observers think that whatever Clark might lose, Edwards could very well gain. And then there are the high number of "undecideds" still remaining in New Hampshire (17 percent as of Friday, comparable to numbers at a similar time before Iowa) — an ample reservoir of voters for a possible Edwards surge.

Certain features of Edwards's campaign — his "likability" rating in polls, his emphasis on words such as "optimism," "hope," and "the future," and his refusal to attack his fellow Democrats — are reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's winning strategy in 1980.

Then, too, Edwards may benefit in the closing days of the New Hampshire battle from reports that he is "rolling like a fast freight" in South Carolina, which is next up with a primary Feb. 3. With a majority of likely New Hampshire Democrats saying "beating Bush" is their top priority in deciding for whom to vote, the news from South Carolina cannot be ignored when handicapping New Hampshire.

Signs on the ground in New Hampshire, poll analysis, the assessment of longtime New Hampshire political watchers, and — frankly — a hunch, a gut instinct, lead this reporter to conclude: Kerry is hot, but Edwards may be on fire. Maybe it's true, maybe it isn't. Most of the herd hasn't reached this conclusion, but it does seem as if some of the lead bison are beginning to sniff that Edwards is the one to watch.

A cautionary note about New Hampshire polling: New Hampshire's history is littered with the carcasses of pollsters' reputations. Embarrassing polling flubs in New Hampshire are many, stretching over a lot of years. Just one example among many: the New Hampshire-based American Research Group (a much-reported daily tracking poll) had Bush leading McCain by 2 points the day before the 2000 primary; Bush lost to McCain by 18 points. On that same day, the AP headline was, "Nearing the New Hampshire finish line, Polls Declare GOP Dead Heat."

Most of the issues that confound New Hampshire polling are systemic to the individual polls. But New Hampshire's voting history does have some quirks: Wildly varying turnout, same-day registration, rapid immigration of new voters, and a tradition of a very high number of undeclared voters.

CBS's Dotty Lynch and Laura Willoughby made considerable contributions to the writing and reporting of this piece

By Dan Rather

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