Howard Dean’s 30-point lead has turned into a virtual tie.

NASHUA, N.H. – Riding a newfound wave of support from his upset win in Iowa, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is now in a virtual tie with a struggling Howard Dean for the nation’s first presidential primary here next week.

Kerry, whose fortunes once were fading in this, his neighboring state, has suddenly become the Democrat to beat in New Hampshire.

“The last two weeks of this campaign have been really different,” Kerry warmly told a crowd turned out Wednesday to see him on the brick-halled campus of Daniel Webster College.

Sounding hoarse from the intense campaign – running on some nights “without sleep, a lot of cold pizza some warm beer” – Kerry told supporters, “I feel like I’m back in exam week in college.”

The examination that New Hampshire’s voters make of the Democratic candidates for president will be crucial. Another loss by Dean, the party’s front-runner in fund-raising nationally and once the runaway leader in early opinion polling in New Hampshire, could mark the beginning of the end for the former Vermont governor’s campaign.

Overnight polls tracking the mood of voters in this state, where both Democrats and independents can vote in the primary, show Kerry and Dean in a dead-heat. The 30-point lead that Dean claimed in New Hampshire in December appears gone with the arctic wind gripping this realm.

Dean was the favorite among 25 percent of likely primary voters here, Kerry 23 percent, according to the results of a new three-day survey released Wednesday by MSNBC and Zogby International. The newspaper USA Today will report similar results from its polling with CNN and the Gallup Organization Thursday.

Because of the 4 percentage-point margin of error in such surveys, this represents a statistical tie – and a stunning shift in voters’ sentiments over the past four weeks.

In another survey, the overnight report of a one-day survey of likely primary voters here following Kerry’s Iowa triumph, Kerry claimed 29 percent support, Dean 24 percent and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark 18. The margin of error for this American Research Group survey is 6 points.

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has made no clear gain here since his surprisingly strong showing in Iowa, finishing a close second to Kerry. Edwards and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut tied at 7 percent in the Zogby survey.

And Clark, who has gained ground here in recent weeks, appears to be holding that ground in the midst of a Kerry surge and Dean slump.

John Bajor, an Air Force veteran from Derry, N.H., already had aligned with Kerry in this campaign. Kerry’s decorated service in Vietnam is something that the onetime Navy lieutenant has made clear in television ads here, one featuring crewmate Del Sandusky from the Mekong River swift boat that Kerry commanded.

Now Bajor’s wife is starting to consider Kerry. Iowa, they said, is the reason.

Half the likely voters still could change their minds in the remaining days, according to a survey sponsored by WMUR, a television station based in Manchester.

And that station’s televised debate Thursday – the final encounter of the Democratic candidates heading into Tuesday’s primary – could provide a critical turning point for the seven Democrats seeking their party’s nomination.

Dean, stunned by his third-place finish in Iowa – Kerry outdistancing Dean by more than two-to-one there – retreated to his home state Wednesday for a day of rethinking.

He will return to New Hampshire Thursday, but even one day lost in this frenetic environment – where the Kerry and Edwards campaign buses passed each other outside Manchester at one point Wednesday – could be another bad day.

Kerry, by contrast, has hit his stride, appearing on stage at Daniel Webster College, tall and trim in a dark suit and arriving with a passionate introduction by a woman, Mary Anne Knowles, suffering from breast cancer.

With her husband out of work, Knowles said she has been forced to keep her job as en editor starting at 7 a.m. each day amid surgery and chemotherapy to remain on her employer’s health plan. Kerry, she said, offers hope of health care with his promise to rescind President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy; health care for all once was the mainstay of the Dean campaign.

“He’s given me hope and an explicit health care plan,” Knowles said of Kerry, who had prostate cancer surgery last year. “I’ll be fighting every day until the Jan. 27 primary.”

(c) 2004, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

Visit the Sentinel on the World Wide Web at On America Online, use keyword: OSO.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): NHPRIMARY

AP-NY-01-21-04 1853EST

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