By Chuck Raasch
Gannett News Service
MANCHESTER, N.H. - After a week in which they refrained from attacking each other and sharpened their rhetoric against President Bush, the Democratic presidential contenders await the often contrarian verdict of New Hampshire voters.
The first presidential primary of 2004 likely will cripple the presidential hopes of at least one or two of the five top contenders fighting for the Democratic nomination.
WHAT'S YOUR TAKE?
Today, New Hampshire voters choose their favorites among the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Pundits will have plenty to say about the vote's national implications. Tell us your reaction to the N.H. primary.
But TV viewers tuning in for the results today could discover that after all the shouting, New Hampshire may eliminate no one - at least not right away.
Going into decision day, polls show that Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the winner of last week's Iowa caucuses, has a noticeable but not overwhelming lead over ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. As the candidates blitzed the state for one final day on Monday, the battle for third was turning out to be nearly as important as the one for first. That fight appears to be a scramble among Sens. John Edwards, D-N.C., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and former Gen. Wesley Clark.
Edwards hasn't gotten the boost some expected from his second-place Iowa finish, though he has drawn large, energetic crowds lately and could surprise again. Clark has gotten stuck in a much larger and more viable field of contenders than he expected coming out of Iowa, and he sometimes meets skepticism that he is really a Democrat. Lieberman, a centrist, is hoping that independents, who can vote in either Democratic or Republican primaries here, will boost his chances.
A caution: New Hampshire polls can be wrong. Late polls had Bush leading John McCain in the 2000 Republican fight, but McCain won by 19 percentage points.
Snow is possible late today, further clouding the election forecast.
And even if Kerry proves the polls right and wins his second big test in eight days, the Democrats are bracing for a long, difficult fight for the nomination. None of the top five appears to have a clear advantage in a majority of the seven states scheduled to vote next - on Tuesday, Feb. 3. All five top candidates look to that date and see a state they could win.
The expectations game out of New Hampshire is often imprecise, but it's even harder to judge this time because of unique circumstances, including:
Dean's crash in the Iowa caucuses after he had spent months building an impressive bank account, organization and lead in the polls. His third-place showing left a big vacuum that four others are trying to fill.
Some think a distant second or worse in New Hampshire could be the beginning of the end for Dean.
The rapid rise of front-runner Kerry, who had been written off as a second-tier contender until he surged late in Iowa.
Another victory, albeit in a friendly neighboring state, would solidify Kerry as the Democrats' clear leader.
The fight for long-term viability among the other three top contenders, all of whom bring unique attributes and challenges to the Democratic mix.
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