NASHUA, N.H. — Playing to huge crowds of wavering voters, Democrats swapped charges of dirty tricks and elitism Monday, closing out the New Hampshire primary on a sour note before the presidential race goes national.
From coffee shops, truck stops, school gyms and country stores, the candidates took their last dose of small-state retail politicking with a collective grimace, testy and tired after a seesaw week of campaigning.
“It’s close and it’s closing fast,” Howard Dean said, accusing his rivals of smearing him in a shadowy phone-and-mail campaign. “I need your help because we have every intention of winning the New Hampshire primary.”
Most public polls gave fellow New Englander John Kerry a double-digit lead over Dean, a former Vermont governor, though at least one survey had the pair in a dead heat. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut were trailing.
Campaign strategists said internal polls and anecdotal evidence indicated that Dean and Edwards had the most momentum in the race’s final hours. New Hampshire has a storied history of upsets and surprises, largely because of a choosy electorate loaded with independents who can vote in party primaries.
“This race could still go any number of ways,” said Wayne Lesperance, political science professor at New England College in Henniker, N.H. “The questions is, how far do Dean and Edwards surge?”
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The answer will come from voters such as Connie Mackey of Nashua, N.H., who had a front-row seat at Dean’s first event.
“I wish I could have Howard Dean’s heart, John Kerry’s political savvy, Wes Clark’s military experience and Edwards’ idealism,” she said.
So, who will it be today?
“Haven’t a clue,” she said with a laugh. “Don’t know whose soap to buy.”
The candidates were in the mood to sell, knowing the importance of a solid finish as they look toward the next stage of contests starting Feb. 3 in seven states.
After the handshake-to-handshake search for votes in the living rooms of Iowa and New Hampshire, the candidates are headed to a series of impersonal, multistate campaigns that focus on airport rallies and million-dollar TV ad buys.
Perhaps they’ll get more sleep. The hotly contested early stages took a toll on the candidates, their voices raspy and no sentence safe. Dean’s support of the people’s right to vote became “the people’s vote to right” in a tongue twister at his first event.
Kerry buzzed the state in helicopters to remind voters of his valorous duty in Vietnam. Given his standing in polls, the Massachusetts senator was counseled by aides to ignore his rivals, but he couldn’t help but question their commitment to abortion rights.
“I’m the only candidate running for president who hasn’t played games, fudged around,” Kerry said as he sought to solidify his advantage among women.
Dean called himself fiscally conservative, socially liberal and the one candidate willing to take tough stands. The message, geared toward New Hampshire independents, is part of a political makeover designed in the desperate hours after Iowa’s caucuses, where he finished third and delivered a shrill election-night speech.
Dean blamed the Iowa loss in part on his rivals’ negative tactics, and said Monday the smears had spread to the Granite State.
“Unfortunately we are seeing a few of those tricks in the Democratic primary,” Dean told a supporter who asked about such tactics.
A spokesman said later that Dean supporters are getting phone calls criticizing Dean for, among other things, claiming to be a Christian when his wife and children are Jewish.
“Show me some evidence,” said Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter, denying any involvement.
Edwards, addressing an overflow crowd of 400 in Portsmouth, N.H., took a familiar jab at his rivals as he called for change in Washington.
“Do you believe somebody that’s been in politics all of their life, or in Washington for decades, will bring that change?” the first-term senator said.
Lieberman’s campaign sent mailings to 70,000 New Hampshire independent voters, hoping to tap into the support that helped Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona win the 2000 GOP primary with 61 percent of the independent vote
“Both John McCain and Joe Lieberman offer the best of American leadership integrity, independence and honesty,” says the letter, signed by six former town chairs.
McCain returned to the site of his political triumph, this time to campaign for his former rival, President Bush. Several Republican surrogates — McCain included — have defended Bush in New Hampshire, a potential swing state in November.
Questioned about Kerry, who frequently compares his military record with his rivals’ foreign policy background, McCain said, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for people to compare their credentials. We let the people compare our credentials.”
Clark skipped Iowa’s caucuses to focus on New Hampshire, but his poll numbers flattened once Kerry brought his high-riding campaign eastward, forcing the easygoing Clark to sharpen his rhetoric.
“I didn’t go to Yale” or enjoy a privileged upbringing, Clark said in Keene, N.H. Kerry, Dean and Lieberman graduated from the Ivy League school, as did Bush. “Unlike all the rest of the people in this race, I did grow up poor.”
Strategists said Clark will draw a similar economic line in the Feb. 3 contests, assuming he survives New Hampshire. Kerry, looking ahead to Feb. 3, is poised to get endorsements from the Democratic governors of Arizona and Michigan if he wins today.