John Kerry's rivals are preparing a final weekend of campaigning to prevent the resurgent Massachusetts Senator from clinching a second straight election season victory in Tuesday's critical Democratic primary here.
With 72 hours to go before the vote, every indication is that Mr Kerry continues to build on his convincing win in Iowa's caucuses earlier this week. A debate on Thursday night - notable for the cordiality between the candidates - did little to change the shape of the contest.
The latest Reuters/MSNBC/ Zogby tracking poll showed Mr Kerry in the lead with 30 per cent, comfortably ahead of Howard Dean, with 22 percent. Retired general Wesley Clark was third with 14 per cent, while Senators John Edwards of North Carolina and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut were still in single figures.
The keenly-awaited debate, the last before the voters have their say in the first primary proper, produced no surprises. With Mr Kerry avoiding any misstep, the stakes were highest for Mr Dean, struggling to regain his footing after the debacle in Iowa, capped by his bawling outburst after the results came in. The tape has become an instant internet and TV hit, dubbed the 'screech heard around the world.' Damage control was the order of the hour for the former Vermont governor, as he tries to shake off talk that he is embittered and headstrong, and too impulsive to be entrusted with the Presidency.
"You know, I'm not a perfect person," Mr Dean said, acknowledging that "a lot of people have had fun at my expense over the Iowa hooting and hollering". That allowed the Rev Al Sharpton, a fellow presidential hopeful and Dean tormentor at previous debates, to get off the best line of the evening: "Don't be too hard on yourself. If I spent the money you did and got 18 per cent [Mr Dean's third place score] I'd still be in Iowa hooting and hollering." The audience roared with laughter.
Later Mr Deanraised a few laughs of his own. When asked by comedian David Letterman on CBS what he would do to turn his campaign around the candidate, responded, "Well, I suppose, maybe fewer crazy red-faced rants."
More important still in his efforts to soften his image, was the joint interview Mr Dean earlier gave to ABC-TV with his wife - the first time Judith Steinberg Dean, a practicing doctor in Vermont, has submitted to such an ordeal since her husband launched his White House bid two years ago.
"Sometimes, I say things that I probably ought not to say," Mr Dean admitted. "But I lead with my heart, and that's what I was doing right there [in Iowa], leading with my heart." With its husband-and-wife format, and cozy setting of a Vermont inn, the occasion was reminiscent of the celebrated primetime TV appearance of Bill and Hillary Clinton at the same point in the 1992 New Hampshire election, in a bid to save a candidacy threatened by reports of Mr Clinton's draft-dodging and philandering.
The tactic worked, helping Mr Clinton salvage a second place finish, enabling him to proclaim himself "the Comeback Kid". But it is unclear whether Mr Dean, who needs a convincing performance here to prevent a seemingly unstoppable campaign from unravelling, will rebound in similar style.
"For the new front-runner Mr Kerry however, the outlook is suddenly hugely promising. "Kerry has narrowed the gap among younger voters," the pollster John Zogby said, "and his lead increases with each age group." Voters over 65 years of age prefer the Massachusetts senator by 2 to 1.
But the poll offers some comfort for the other candidates. More than a fifth of likely primary voters are undecided, and a late swing could still help Mr Dean, General Clark or even Mr Edwards, who seems oddly unable to convert his impressive second place in Iowa into new support here.
The poll showed the North Carolina Senator stuck at 7 per cent, marginally ahead of Mr Lieberman. Both insist they will continue their campaigns, as the primary battle moves into the more friendly territory of the south and west.
Aides to General Clark - who on Tuesday competes in the first election of his life - make the same argument. But the unexpected recovery of Mr Kerry has made life harder for the former Nato supreme commander, who had been banking on a Dean victory in Iowa. This would have left him as the strongest centrist alternative, with a proven record on national security. Now Mr Kerry, a decorated Vietnam war veteran, seems likely to be General Clark's toughest opponent, with military credentials almost to match his own.Reuse content