WASHINGTON – Numbers have been Howard Dean's (search) friend. Numbers of campaign dollars raised. Numbers of supporters drawn to his candidacy through the Internet. Numbers of backers crammed into schools and auditoriums.
But the latest poll numbers in New Hampshire could only create a sense of foreboding in the Dean camp just days ahead of Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. The overall totals show rival John Kerry (search), winner of the Iowa caucuses, erasing Dean's once commanding lead and surging to the front of the Democratic presidential pack.
And these signs of distress for the former Vermont governor go beyond the top line.
One-time front-runner Dean has been losing support among several demographic groups, especially middle-age and older women, pollsters say. His supporters have been dwindling, leaving largely his original core of younger, liberal adults who helped launch his campaign last spring.
Dean has even lost support in the rural counties in western New Hampshire bordering Vermont that have been his stronghold. Whereas seven in 10 New Hampshire voters saw Dean favorably late last year, a third now see him favorably, a third unfavorably and a third remain undecided, according to the ARG poll.
Earlier this year, Dean seemed a sure bet to win New Hampshire. His lead of 25 percentage points or more started to fade after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was captured Dec. 14 and Democratic voters focused on other issues, such as electability, pollsters say.
"Dean's slide started before Iowa, Iowa compounded it, and the (concession) speech in Iowa raised serious questions, even in the minds of people who were with him," said pollster Gerry Chervinsky of KRC Communications and Research in Newton, Mass.
Dean finished a disappointing third Monday in Iowa behind Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Then Dean tried to cheer his supporters with a bellowing concession speech that is fast becoming a cult classic on the Internet and late-night comedy shows.
Aware of the need to stop Dean's slide, the candidate adopted a more subdued approach, tried to explain his outburst as his no-holds-barred style and tried to soften his image with an interview with his wife with ABC News' Diane Sawyer and an all-in-fun appearance on the "Late Show With David Letterman."
Dean aides, meanwhile, dismissed the pollsters' gloomy take on his prospects.
"People in New Hampshire will have their say in five days and that's what important," said Dean campaign spokesman Jay Carson. "I think everyone has seen how much can change in five days."
And Carson was quick to remind that the Dean campaign has a financial and organizational advantage built through a very successful 2003 when Dean raised roughly $40 million and amassed a formidable grass-roots network with the help of the Internet.
"We're the only campaign that's built a 50-state operation to compete with and beat President Bush," Carson said. "That kind of operation can certainly handle the competition from these guys."
The intense level of public and private polling in New Hampshire suggests that's not the direction things are going in the days leading to Tuesday's primary.
The results in Iowa changed the dynamic of the New Hampshire campaign where Dean was already facing a close race.
Wesley Clark skipped Iowa and was gaining on Dean in New Hampshire, eager to challenge him head-to-head on the issue of national security. After Kerry's victory, Clark's plan of being the main opponent to Dean in New Hampshire was foiled and he has stalled in the polls.
Now, an energized Kerry brings his strong credentials on foreign policy, domestic policy and electability to New Hampshire, said pollster Kelly Myers of RKM in Portsmouth, N.H. Kerry is a decorated Vietnam veteran who is serving his fourth term in the Senate.
"Coming out of Iowa, Kerry got an enormous bounce," Myers said. "Suddenly voters here were thinking Kerry was a better alternative to Dean than Clark."