MANCHESTER, N.H. – With just five days left until the much-anticipated New Hampshire primary, Democratic presidential hopefuls were sharpening their wits in preparation for a Fox News Channel-sponsored debate to be aired on FNC Thursday at 8 p.m. EST.
Meanwhile, they were looking forward to future primaries in other states, as well.
The face-off was likely to have a new focus for attacks: Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), who was still riding the "Iowa bounce" after his caucus win and who had a 10-point lead over former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search) in New Hampshire, according to a Boston Herald poll published Thursday.
Kerry on Thursday also got the endorsements of the Herald and its The Boston Globe; both have masses of readers in the Granite State.
The Globe called Kerry "the most presidential ... the man we trust to represent American interests across the table from a foreign leader or any powerful interest ... his so-called 'nuanced' thinking is a necessary tool in a world that is no longer black and white."
In the Herald poll of 501 likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire, Kerry had 31 percent to Dean's 21 percent, while retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark (search) had 16 percent. The poll was conducted from Jan. 20-21.
A Fox News New Hampshire tracking poll released before the debate shows that Dean has dropped 7 percentage points in the last three days while Kerry has gained 6 percentage points. There was a potential sampling error of 4.4 percentage points.
• Click here for N.H. Tracking Poll (pdf)
Of the 489 likely New Hampshire primary voters who were interviewed from Jan. 19-21 in that poll, 30 percent of likely Democratic primary voters support Kerry, 25 percent support Dean, 19 percent Clark, 8 percent Edwards, 7 percent Lieberman, 3 percent support Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and 7 percent remain undecided.
An earlier Fox News New Hampshire tracking poll conducted from Jan. 18-20 indicated that Kerry and Dean were in a virtual dead heat.
"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 Andrew Cline, editorial page editor for the Manchester Union Leader, which has backed Lieberman.
"Lieberman is a lot more consistent than most of the candidates, and we like that," Cline said.
A New Hampshire tracking poll released by American Research Group (search) on Thursday shows Kerry with 27 percent of the vote, Dean with 22 percent, Clark with 19 percent. Edwards with 9 percent and Lieberman with 7 percent; 14 percent were undecided. That poll, conducted from Jan. 19-21, surveyed 811 voters - 573 of whom were Democrats. The margin of error was 4 percentage points.
Bypassing Dean in the polls, Kerry is calling himself "Comeback Kerry," but he's also still referring to himself as an "underdog."
"The polls don't matter to me," he told Fox News.
Kerry is saying he has a lot of work to do to prove he's the only candidate who can defeat Bush.
Eyes On Future Races
While preparing for Tuesday's primary, candidates are also setting their sites and focusing their campaigns on post-New Hampshire races.
Kerry lined up the endorsement of Sen. Ernest Hollings (search), D-S.C., during the day and picked up the support of a 34,000-member union local in Michigan.
"This isn't the only place there is a race," he told reporters in New Hampshire.
Kerry has had private talks with Rep. Dick Gephardt, (search) whose departure from the Democratic presidential race on Monday left Missouri a key battleground. Gephardt's backing would be an important factor in Missouri, one of seven states that will hold primaries on Feb. 3.
Lieberman, the party's 2000 vice presidential contender, insisted that he would make the strongest challenger to Bush this fall. "They can't run the normal Republican playbook against me," he said.
At a meeting with voters at a town hall meeting, Edwards continued to push his message that he has a positive vision for America and that he's the man who can beat Bush.
"I am ready for this fight ... you have to give me a shot at George W. Bush and I'll give you the White House," Edwards said.
Clark, who is now facing an uphill battle in New Hampshire, attended a Planned Parenthood breakfast on Thursday, where he said: "I'm comfortable where are in the race, momentum and support," in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Michigan, among other states. "I'm not paying attention to polls, but what I see in voters."
Clark's press manager, Bill Buck, told Fox News on Thursday that the fact that his boss isn't running as negative a campaign as some of his rivals is helping his ratings.
New Hampshire voters will be drawn to "Gen. Clark's very positive view of the possibilities of America's future," Buck said.
Lieberman told reporters that he's not looking at the polls but "thinking of the people of New Hampshire, asking them to look at the seven candidates, which one do they have confidence" in to lead the country.
Lieberman and his family even moved into an apartment in Manchester to get closer to New Hampshire voters.
Lieberman said while the debate will be an "important moment," it won't be a "make or break" event but will give him a chance to let voters know he's a "unifier, tough enough to protect the economy and the future."
A Positive Spin for 'YARRR?'
Dean and his aides worked on a plan to quell the damage from the poor showing in Iowa and his memorable arm-waving performance when he red-faced into a microphone that still has a lot of people shaking their heads.
Late-night talk shows are using the impassioned speech for comic relief, and remixes of the speech featuring the rock band Guns 'N Roses and house music are flying around the Internet at warp speed.
"He's a punch line, and I just don't think he's going to get over it," said Cline.
On Thursday, Dean made light several times of his Monday political blunder, saying, "I still have not recovered my voice from my screeching in Iowa."
Countering arguments that the media has made Dean into a monster because of his outburst, National Review Editor Rich Lowry said, "the media didn't do this to him, he did it to himself and there's no way to put a positive spin on a presidential candidate screaming 'YAARRR' at the top of his lungs."
Fox News' Carl Cameron, Catherine Donaldson-Evans, Kelly Wright and The Associated Press contributed to this report.