Howard Dean (search) needs to win at least one primary in the next two weeks to keep from becoming political toast, political experts said Thursday.
The former Vermont governor is trying to get his floundering campaign back on track after twin losses in Iowa and New Hampshire -- races he was expected to win handily only a few weeks ago.
"I think he's toast, I think his campaign is over," Dick Harpootlian, the former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, told Fox News. "I think it's a Kerry-Edwards race and I think it's going to be decided right here, in South Carolina, next week."
"I am hopeful -- in a couple of days I'll be able to talk him into to coming back to work for the campaign again," Dean said Wednesday. "But unfortunately, that's not the case tonight."
"It was certainly shocking when you consider Joe Trippi really was the architect of a great campaign for Dean," Joe Erwin, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, told Fox News. "It's hard for me to imagine it's a helpful thing at this point in a critical race as we go to seven primaries and caucuses on Feb. 3."
'We Need to Win Somewhere'
The Feb. 3 races signify the first real test of a candidate's national appeal, with 269 Democratic convention delegates up for grabs. If a candidate doesn't walk away with a win, many politicos say he should bag it and walk away from the campaign trail.
There's some discord among Dean staffers over which of the seven Feb. 3 states Dean should focus on instead of spreading himself too thin. But "we're going to try everywhere," Dean said.
He is leaning away from both South Carolina and Missouri, saying South Carolina is a GOP state in general elections and he wants to avoid an expensive showdown with Kerry in Missouri.
Dean said Thursday that he doesn't need to win any of the Feb. 3 states to keep his beleaguered campaign alive.
Coming on the heels of the campaign's decision not to buy TV ads in those states, Dean said he will focus on picking up as many delegates as he can. But he said picking up delegates only requires him to place, not win, in the future.
"We're going to have to win eventually," he said. "But the question was do we have to win on Feb. 3. Of course we want to, but we don't have to."
Dean's advertising plan puts him at a distinct disadvantage with high-spending rivals Kerry, Edwards and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, said officials.
"People are continuing to bring dollars to the campaign," Steve Grossman, Dean's national campaign chairman, told Fox News. "We need to be competitive, we need to win somewhere and I think that's pretty obvious to everybody."
People are also wondering if Dean is now going mainstream. That move would be a dramatic shift in strategy, since Dean has been priding himself on not being a "Washington insider." Neel is just that -- a long-time Democratic party player who has been running a trade association in Washington as a lobbyist.
"For Howard Dean, who is blasting away at Washington insiders -- he is the anti-Washington candidate -- to now hire somebody who is at the center of the Washington cesspool is pretty ironic," said Mort Kondracke, co-host of Fox News' "The Beltway Boys."
Prepping for South Carolina Debate
The Democratic candidates arrived in South Carolina Thursday to participate in a 7 p.m. EST debate in Greenville.
Kerry is running in second place behind Edwards, who was born in South Carolina, in the latest polls. The Rev. Al Sharpton (search), who has spent the past week campaigning in South Carolina, is in third.
"I think it's a wide open race ... all the candidates are working hard here," Erwin said. "There's a great opportunity for all these candidates to be tested against a more diverse group of voters."
Kerry on Thursday received the endorsement of Rep. James Clyburn (search), an influential black South Carolina Democrat who could help Kerry garner the African-American vote in the Palmetto State. About 30 to 40 percent of voters expected to turn out for Tuesday's primary will be black.
"All of the Democratic candidates seem to be on the same page [on the issues]. The clincher for me was the whole notion on how we can bring our country back together again," Clyburn told Fox News Thursday. "I think he [Kerry] can help us heal from the era of Vietnam. There's still sores from that."
Edwards, who has been using his southern roots to his advantage on the South Carolina stump, isn't letting that endorsement get him down.
"I have great respect for Congressman Clyburn. He's a good man," Edwards said, adding, "I think actually almost all of Congressman Clyburn's people are supporting me and working with me."
"None of this is an anti-John Edwards," Clyburn said. "This is all about trying to add a boost to John Kerry. I want John Kerry to leave South Carolina with one of the two tickets to the championship match that will come the next Tuesday" when voters go to the polls in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina.
But endorsements don't necessarily win elections, experts said.
"If we've learned anything from the past couple of months, endorsement from Al Gore and the like don't make a difference in the way votes are cast," said former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, who is an adviser to Clark's campaign, referring to Gore and others like Bill Bradley endorsing Dean.
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (search) on Thursday receive the endorsement of The Arizona Republic.
Edwards, meanwhile, picked up the support in Missouri of Rep. Ike Skelton (search), D-Mo.
Kerry is hoping for the endorsement of Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search), who dropped out of the presidential running after coming in fourth in the Iowa caucuses.
Edwards strategists were weighing a proposal by Missouri Democrats for a possible debate in the Show Me State on Monday.
Kinks in the Dean Machine
On Thursday, Dean returned to the campaign trail with a rally at Michigan State University.
"Michigan is the biggest delegate pool that we have," Dean told reporters aboard his campaign plane. "I said consistently yesterday that we're after delegates. We have a good organization in Michigan and we want to try to win."
Michigan offers 128 pledged delegates.
"Our goal is to get as many delegates as possible," Dean said. "Of course we try to win everywhere where we enter, and we'll make decisions about the campaign later on."
According to sources, Trippi had argued that Dean would be smarter to hang in the weeds before Tuesday and instead concentrate on Michigan. The thinking was that if Dean continued to come in second or third in the Feb. 3 states, he would not only allow Kerry to take the momentum but Dean would then be out of money.
Several lawmakers who support Dean told him in a conference call on Wednesday that second place is not good enough to win the nomination.
"He said he understood," said one lawmaker.
The campaign shakeup is "acknowledgment that things have gotten drastically off course," said Anita Dunn, who helped run Bill Bradley's failed 2000 campaign. "Often, when that happens you make a managerial change, no matter how well the manager was doing."
Campaign spokesman Jay Carson said Dean raised more than $4 million this month and has plenty of money to compete in future primaries. But election experts say the money pipeline may dry up.
"I think if he had knocked out these first two states you would have seen some of the regular Democratic donors moving in hit direction, but I don't see that," Said Harold Ickes, a former Clinton administration official now raising money for a Democratic-leaning political group. "He's fortunate that he's not relying on the big donors."
Fox News' Carl Cameron, Molly Henneberg, Brian Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.