MANCHESTER, N.H. – On the first day of his suddenly embattled presidential campaign, a visibly self-restrained Howard Dean received welcome encouragement.

“Win or lose,” retiree Dick Snow told Dean Tuesday. “I want to thank you for trying to change the system.”

“It’s a lot more fun to win,” replied Dean, allowing that his stunning defeat by two fellow Democrats in Iowa’s season-opening caucuses Monday night was no fun. “We better win in New Hampshire, if we’re going to change the system.”

But while Dean faced the gloomy prospect that another loss Tuesday in New Hampshire’s primary could doom his chances of capturing the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. John Kerry, the winner in Iowa, was flying high.

“Thank you for welcoming back to New Hampshire “Comeback Kerry,”‘ he told a few hundred supporters in an airplane hangar here after a 3 a.m. flight from Iowa. “We, together, can start an American comeback.”

Already, voters say, they are taking another look at Kerry following the Massachusetts’ senator’s Iowa victory.

“He’s a more viable candidate,” said Mary Liponis, of nearby Derry, N.H. “I want to vote for somebody who can win. People will take a second look at him.”

Yet the best positioned of the Democrats could be Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who finished second to Kerry in Iowa and well ahead of Dean. While Dean and Kerry have to focus on stalling retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark’s campaign, Edwards may be able to build support by avoiding confrontation. Another strong showing Tuesday would give him momentum heading into South Carolina’s Feb. 3 primary.

“I think the race is wide-open,” Clark said at a small rally for supporters Tuesday.

Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri officially abandoned his White House bid Tuesday after placing fourth in the caucuses. Gephardt’s move leaves his home state’s 74 pledged-convention delegates – more than Iowa and New Hampshire combined – up for grabs when Missouri holds its primary Feb. 3.

Pre-Iowa polling had Dean in first place here and Clark vying with Kerry for the second spot. But all bets are off now and observers expect a shift when tracking polls today gauge post-caucus sentiment.

And Clark is attempting to draw some contrasts with his rivals.

“I’ve laid out all my records, and I challenge every other candidate who claims to be a Democrat in this race to do likewise, this week,” taking a swipe at Dean’s bid to keep sealed many of the records he kept as Vermont’s governor.

Kerry led veterans protesting the Vietnam War after winning high honors as a Navy officer there. Clark, also a decorated Vietnam veteran, devoted a 34-year-career to the Army. “I stayed with the military,” Clark said, and when asked what this meant about Kerry, he said: “I’m only saying that I stayed with the U.S. Armed Forces.”

But it is Dean who campaigns most gingerly now. Dean confronted questions about his performance Monday night when he exhorted supporters with a throaty, sometimes howling promise to win state after state and then roaring like a lion.

When he appeared before a few hundred supporters in a Manchester hotel ballroom, Dean delivered a quiet, measured version of his appeal to “take back our country” from special interests.

“We spent a long time as the supposed front-runner, and we paid the price that front-runners pay,” Dean said later. “Now it’s time to regroup.”



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