Analysis: FNC Debate Could Prove Critical

With John Kerry (search) entering New Hampshire with the Iowa bounce and Dick Gephardt (search) out of the race, the Fox News Channel debate on Thursday has the potential to be a defining moment for several candidates.

Kerry, who convinced Iowans to give him a second look, knows a New Hampshire victory could cripple Howard Dean (search) or Wesley Clark (search). But New Hampshire knows Kerry very well. Convincing Granite Staters to take a second look at him may not be as easy for Kerry as it sounds, even with a bounce.

Kerry was able to co-opt much of Dean’s outsider/populist message in Iowa, but that could backfire in New Hampshire, where Kerry is better known to be neither.

If Kerry attempts to parrot too much of the Dean message in New Hampshire, it could wind up working against him. Kerry’s victory speech in Iowa was laced with New England references; already, his Massachusetts mafia (largely Kennedy operatives) is in New Hampshire.

Kerry knows a New Hampshire win could be lethal to Dean. Kerry knows besting Clark could put the retired general out of the race as well. 

Once the front-runner, Dean probably faces a do-or-die battle in New Hampshire. After months atop the polls, Dean’s third-place showing in Iowa means he now has to prove that he can take a punch and fight on.

After such a setback, most presidential candidates traditionally "retool"-- adjust strategy and message to emerge ready to fight anew. Not Dean. Aides say the defeat in Iowa liberates Dr. Dean to be "who he really is."

He will continue his outsider theme and raise the rhetoric and the volume. This may not satisfy the political necessities of adjusting after a setback.

The Dean camp says they did not tap the Internet in New Hampshire the way they did to import volunteers in Iowa, because New Hampshire is more about retail politicking than organization.

New Hampshire voters, however, are sophisticated enough to expect Dean to alter his message a bit and show that he can reach into himself and adjust. But the Dean campaign says it plans to essentially stick to the same message. They argue that in Iowa, "Dean’s message of change won," but that it was stolen over the last year by his rivals.

Dean aides say they will explain to New Hampshire voters that they have to decide what kind of change they want. They will present Dean as a governor who has provided health care to children, balanced a budget and is:

1) A change from a Washington insider (Kerry). 

2) A change from someone who has never actually done anything (John Edwards (search)).

3) A change from a special-interest lobbyist (Clark).

In essence, this is not a retooled message, but the same one Dean was unable to win with in Iowa.

Some Dean advisers would prefer to wait and see if Kerry, Clark and/or Edwards get into a spat. Dean would then decry the petty politics of a Washington insider, a lobbyist and an inexperienced freshman senator/trial lawyer.

The problem for Dean is the lack of time and the midweek debate. If Dean does not attack, Kerry can turn the Iowa bounce into a new surge, and Dean may never recover from the Iowa setback.

The debate over strategy illustrates a growing problem in the Dean camp: too many advisers telling Dr. Dean how to be Dean. Some aides complain that Dean, the anti-establishment candidate, has so many endorsement advisers he can barely get his own thoughts out (Al Gore, Bill Bradley, AFSCME, SEIU, Jimmy Carter, Tom Harkin, bloggers, Deaniacs, etc. etc.).

Dean aides admit they got caught in a fight with Gephardt in Iowa and lost their message. The Gephardt-Dean ad war in Iowa hurt both of them and gave Kerry and Edwards an opening.

Dean aides now sound ready to take on everyone. They say "all along we knew the battle would be in New Hampshire, we would have liked to win in Iowa, but New Hampshire is home turf for us."

Dean has to figure out how to move beyond what might be called his "kids and kooks coalition" and broaden his appeal. Before Dean’s organization in Iowa came up short, they often boasted that their New Hampshire team was even stronger. Now we'll find out. 

Clark and Kerry are tied in the polls for second. Dean, who has lead New Hampshire polls, now finds himself backed up against the wall.

Meanwhile, Edwards is mulling where and how to compete. Edwards' aides say they will campaign in New Hampshire, but being that they are far back in the polls behind two New Englanders and Clark -- who has basically lived in New Hampshire since September -- they say they will start beefing up their efforts in South Carolina to make their big stand there.

Edwards hopes that another fight breaks out between his rivals in New Hampshire, again opening a window of opportunity for him to creep up the way he did in Iowa. But this depends on his rivals, and if it fails to materialize, Edwards wants to be prepared in the South.

Clark expects to be a punching bag, and well he should. To date, every time he has faced serious scrutiny in the campaign he has said or done something to trip himself up. Clark has to show what he is made of this week and he knows it.

When he decided to lower expectations, Clark said he hoped for a top-four finish in New Hampshire -- a move that may have been smart. Clark needs at least fourth place -- more likely, third -- to move on to the Feb. 3 races with any life left in him.

In Iowa, Kerry carried young people and nearly 40 percent of the anti-war vote. But much of Kerry’s support in Iowa is said to have come from Gephardt supporters, who flocked to Kerry in caucuses where Gephardt failed to survive the first ballot.

No such second choice exists in the primary, and in New Hampshire, voters may not be as eager to take a second look.