NEW YORK – Democratic presidential hopefuls were launching new ads and refining last-minute campaign strategies to elbow each other out of the running with only two days left until the closely- watched Iowa caucuses.
Howard Dean (search), John Kerry (search), Richard Gephardt (search) and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search) were virtually neck and neck, according to the latest tracking poll released Friday. Up until recently, Dean had been enjoying a comfortable lead in the Iowa polls.
"We are coming very close to the caucus equivalent of the 2000 election," said USA Today political columnist Walter Shapiro. But "there's almost no certainty about anything."
As of Saturday, polls were showing a four-way statistical tie, given the margin of error, but Kerry remained in the lead, with 23 points, followed by Dean's 22, Gephardt's 19 and Edwards' 18.
A day earlier, Kerry had seen a lead of five points over Dean and Gephardt, who were tied, and seven points over Edwards.
"We're just working hard out here. We've got three more days — polls do not get people out to the polls," Kerry, surrounded by cheering supporters, told Fox News from Iowa on Friday.
"I'm talking to people about the things that matter," such as jobs and health care, he added. "And most importantly, people want leadership."
He said the American people "want leadership that is tested and trusted" and want a president who has the "temperament and judgment" to be a good leader.
In the past few days, Kerry has shown a more relaxed side, and enthusiasm among supporters has been mounting, indicating the Massachusetts senator has seemed to have hit his stride despite earlier bumps in the campaign road.
"Iowans are wonderful — we're having more fun meeting people. They open their hearts and their homes to you," Kerry said. "This is about as good as democracy gets."
On Thursday, Carol Moseley Braun (search) pulled herself out of the race and threw her support behind Dean. Dean, who has the endorsements of 2000 Democratic top contenders Al Gore and Bill Bradley, was conducting a five-day Iowa bus tour, in which actors Martin Sheen and Rob Reiner were participating.
Friday morning, Gephardt met with Democrats at his Fort Dodge, Iowa, headquarters. He said he has the best organization and was confident he could win.
"We're not even going to entertain the notion of losing in Iowa," said Steve Murphy, Gephardt's campaign manager. "We are going to win here, we have the best organization by far. The way this race is shaping up right now is great for Dick Gephardt."
Edwards was beaming with confidence after the latest numbers put him with the top contenders as he traveled across the state with his "Five Days to Change America" campaign.
Several issues have emerged in Iowa as key concerns for voters, including the economy, the loss of jobs to overseas or Mexican workforces and the war in Iraq. Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver has predicted a record turnout at Monday's caucus, reported the Des Moines Register.
Kerry Pulls Ahead
In a Zogby (search) tracking poll of 503 likely caucus voters released Friday, Kerry still had the lead in Iowa. Kerry had 24 percent of the vote, with Dean and Gephardt garnering 19 percent. Edwards had 17 percent. The poll, which averages support from Jan. 13-15, has a margin of error of 4.5 percent. All other candidates had single-digit support and 13 percent of voters were undecided.
"Are these numbers accurate … perhaps so or perhaps no," said National Review White House correspondent Byron York. "I think it's very hard to predict this ... [but] it certainly appears that Dean's lead is slipping but I don't know if the others are going the way the polls say they are."
A Research 2000 poll of Iowa voters released Thursday showed Dean at 22 percent, Kerry at 21 percent, Gephardt at 18 percent and Edwards at 18 percent. The undecided vote was at 13 percent and other candidates were in single digits.
"Any one of those four could win," said pollster Del Ali of Research 2000 (search), who conducted the poll for KCCI-TV of Des Moines. "The biggest surge without question is Edwards. Both Kerry and Edwards have momentum."
According to the latest New Hampshire poll conducted by American Research Group, Dean got 28 percent of the vote there, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark (search) got 22 percent, Kerry got 18 percent and all other candidates were in the single digits. The poll was taken from Jan. 13-15.
According to ARG, while 71 percent of likely Democratic women voters have a favorable opinion of Clark and while Dean leads Clark among men by just 1 percentage point, Clark continues to trail Dean among women, 28 percent to 19 percent. Women moving away from Dean are more likely to switch to Kerry, according to ARG. A total of 14 percent of men and 18 percent of women said they would vote for Kerry.
Kerry has regained enough pre-Iowa ballot strength to challenge Dean and Clark for the lead in New Hampshire should Kerry win in Iowa, according to ARG.
That same poll Thursday showed Dean with 29 percent of the Democratic vote, Clark steadily catching up with 24 percent of the vote, Kerry with 15 percent and all others in single digits.
Clark, who opted out of campaigning in Iowa, has been steadily gaining on Dean in New Hampshire while Dean has lost steam there, according to daily polling. Kerry, too, was trying to bump up his numbers in New Hampshire.
"John Kerry has been gaining the support of undecided Iowans for the past week," said Michael Meehan, senior adviser for the Kerry campaign. "We're looking to get one of the three spots coming out of Iowa. ... John Kerry wants one of those spots to take to New Hampshire."
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said Friday that a tight race in the Iowa caucuses is good for his campaign, even though he's not one of the Democratic presidential candidates contending for support there.
Lieberman, who is trailing in New Hampshire polls, said the Iowa four-way tie polls mean voters are taking a second look at the candidates, especially any presumed front-runner.
"The bottom line is this is an open, Democratic contest, totally undecided," he said. "The news to me from Iowa is that every vote counts because it is a tight race."
New Ads Hit the Airwaves
Kerry's campaign launched a new ad on Friday, heading into Iowa's homestretch.
The 30-second spot features Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack (search), who endorsed the Kerry, telling Iowans that she and other prominent state leaders are supporting Kerry because he has the character and judgment to fight for everyday Americans.
"Christie Vilsack is a leader who is near and dear to the hearts of Iowa voters, and John Kerry is honored to have her by his side in this campaign," said Kerry spokesperson Stephanie Cutter. "Together, they are fighting hard to stand up for Iowa families, a fight John Kerry will continue as president."
Gephardt also launched an ad asking voters, "How much do you really know about Howard Dean?"
Clark Goes on the Offensive
Meanwhile, Clark at a Friday news conference made public his military and some other records. Seeking to boost the candidate's numbers in the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27, Clark aides said they were advertising the event as a whack at Dean.
Clark challenged his rivals to join him in releasing financial and other personal records.
"I challenge all Democrats in the race to follow suit," Clark said as he released military, voter registration and financial records. "Everybody ought to be open as candidates."
Dean sealed about 10 percent of his gubernatorial records, claiming executive privilege and arguing that they contained sensitive personal material about constituents.
Clark has tried to avoid the political sniping, saying he doesn't want to take part in the pettiness of Washington insiders, but he has taken a few counter punches at Dean.
Clark's New Hampshire team said it understands that Clark is going to become a punching bag once the Iowa caucuses are over. But all the catfighting among the candidates may be taking its toll.
"One thing candidates are definitely learning from this experience is voters seem much more interested in the positive, in what you're going to do rather than how angry you are and what you've been against," said Bruce Reed, head of the Democratic Leadership Council.
Fox News' Carl Cameron, Katie Sargent, Kelly Wright and The Associated Press contributed to this report.