MANCHESTER, N.H. – Democratic presidential hopefuls are sharpening their wits and answers, hoping to take each other out of the running as they prepared to face off in a debate Thursday -- the last public arguing session for all the candidates before next week's New Hampshire primary.
Polls in New Hampshire showed a race that's far tighter since Monday's caucuses in Iowa. Howard Dean (search) and John Kerry (search) were in a virtual dead heat, according to a Fox News New Hampshire tracking poll conducted Jan. 18-20.
On Thursday, both of Boston's major daily newspapers -- The Boston Herald and The Boston Globe -- endorsed Kerry. This may lead to a boost in the N.H. primary for Kerry, as large amounts of New Hampshire residents read these metropolitan papers -- many being Boston transplants.
Dean had the support of 29 percent of respondents while Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, had the backing of 27 percent, the poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center found. Because of the 4.6 percent margin of error, the two men were effectively tied.
The poll showed that backing for Dean, the former Vermont governor who came in a distant third in Iowa, dropped 4 percent while those favoring Iowa-winner Kerry increased by 3 percent.
Rounding out the rest of the field: 18 percent like retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark (search), 8 percent prefer Sen. John Edwards (search), 5 percent like Sen. Joe Lieberman (search), 3 percent back Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich (search) and 3 percent support other candidates. The poll found that 6 percent of likely Democratic voters remain undecided.
"It's pretty exciting. People who are observing it on the outside are pretty thrilled that we're going into the final weekend where it's totally up in the air -- anything can happen," said Drew Cline, editorial page editor for the Manchester Union Leader.
Enjoying the so-called "Iowa bounce" from his solid victory in Monday's Iowa caucuses, earlier polls also showed Kerry was gaining more support in New Hampshire.
According to The Boston Globe/WBZ tracking poll, 27 percent of likely voters there favored Kerry, while 24 percent were for Dean. Clark got 17 percent, Edwards got percent and Lieberman got 4 percent.
And the latest New Hampshire poll from American Research Group showed Dean garnering 26 percent of the vote, Kerry with 24 percent, Clark with 18 percent and all other candidates were in single digits; 13 percent of voters were undecided.
Whereas Dean had a clear lead before the Iowa caucuses, Kerry has taken on the air of front-runner, calling himself "Comeback Kerry."
"It's second look time for the Democratic candidates and John Kerry is the biggest beneficiary of that second look," Greg Craig, senior adviser to the Kerry campaign, told Fox News on Wednesday.
All of the candidates, including Kucinich and Rev. Al Sharpton (search), will challenge each other Thursday night during the only debate left before next Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. Fox News is a sponsor of the debate.
Raking in the Cash
The knockout finishes by Kerry and Edwards in Iowa were already paying off for their New Hampshire contest.
Each took in tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions over their Web sites within hours of the Iowa caucuses. Kerry, Edwards and Dean all tried to capitalize on the caucuses with fund-raising e-mails.
Kerry alone raked in nearly $400,000 in just two days.
In an interview with Fox News, Kerry ignored the polls and focused on New Hampshire voters, notorious for erasing a front-runner's lead and demanding one-on-one contact.
"I consider myself still an underdog, and I'm fighting for every vote here, just the way I did in Iowa," Kerry said. "I never listen to the polls."
A new Kerry ad scheduled to air Wednesday night in New Hampshire will say Kerry's the most prepared to be president and capitalizes on quirky reputations and doubts of Clark and Dean.
Dean's Death Knell?
There's a growing belief in the Kerry campaign and among New Hampshire Democrats that the bottom may be falling out of the Dean candidacy. Dean himself took the rest of Wednesday off to return to Vermont and recalibrate his campaign and attend his son's high-school hockey game.
Dean's post-Iowa caucus outburst, when he screamed, red-faced, into a wireless microphone with fists pounding, still has people talking, and not necessarily in a good way. Some pundits think Clark may be the biggest beneficiary in New Hampshire from the episode.
"He [Clark] may benefit some from this Dean meltdown," Cline said. "We have a lot of New Hampshire voters who are very serious about choosing someone who's very independent minded … and if they were leaning toward Dean then saw that meltdown on Monday, they may say, 'ooh, I may support Clark now.'"
"A question of his temperament, especially after his speech from the other night, may be the death knell for his campaign," added Gerry Chervinsky, president of the company that conducted The Boston Globe poll.
Dick Bennett, an expert pollster in New Hampshire, told Fox News that data from Tuesday night showed a dramatic shift away from Dean -- whereas up until then, 57 percent of New Hampshire voters had a favorable opinion of the doctor-turned-politician; now only 39 percent do. And if that continues, Dean's numbers will continue to fall, Bennett said.
Dean aides say they will present their boss to Granite State residents as a fresh candidate who will paint Kerry as a Washington insider, Edwards as someone who has little experience and Clark as a special-interest lobbyist.
Dean aides admit they got caught in an advertising fight with Rep. Dick Gephardt -- who dropped out of the race after his fourth-place finish in Iowa Monday night -- and lost sight of their message. That gave Kerry and Edwards an opening.
After months of campaigning as a uniquely uncompromising Democrat, Dean -- who opted out of public campaign financing -- on Thursday will announce that he wants to lower the limit of individual campaign contributions from $2,000 to $250.
"If we want people to stand up for what's right, we have to have real campaign finance reform," Dean said.
Rallying New Hampshire Voters
Dean used a campaign event at his Manchester, N.H., headquarters to hammer home his anti-war message, chastising other Democrats for not putting up more of a fight against sending U.S. troops to Iraq.
"I think we all know that one of the reasons we're in Iraq is because the Democrats wouldn't stand up for what they believed was right and they did what they thought was popular," Dean said.
Kerry on Wednesday offered a package of health care proposals and said he favors allowing cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and using the buying power of the federal government to drive down prices.
"We are facing a health care crisis in this country, and last night the president offered only sound bites, but no solutions," Kerry said.
Clark, retired four-star Army general and former NATO supreme allied commander, told veterans that he is the only Democratic candidate for president with the right mix of military, foreign policy and administrative skills, saying, "I can walk the walk, not just talk the talk … and I can beat George W. Bush."
Clark needs at least a fourth place -- but more likely, a third-place finish -- to move on with any luck to the Feb. 3 races in South Carolina, Missouri, Delaware, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico and North Dakota.
Edwards' aides said he will campaign in New Hampshire, but they will start beefing up their efforts in South Carolina to make their big stand there, where his support is stronger.
"The South is not George Bush's backyard, it's my backyard," Edwards told supporters at a sandwich shop in Greenville, S.C., on Wednesday.
Fox News' Carl Cameron, Major Garrett and Molly Henneberg contributed to this report.