Democrats head South as Kerry ties up New Hampshire

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The Independent US

John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator, yesterday took his surging campaign to Missouri, savouring his convincing win in New Hampshire and leaving his rivals scrambling to find a way to stop his march towards the Democratic presidential nomination.

In the end, Mr Kerry's victory in the first primary of the season was more comprehensive than predicted. With 39 per cent of the vote, he finished comfortably ahead of the former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who staged a recovery of sorts to reach 26 per cent.

More tellingly, Mr Kerry secured more support than the third, fourth and fifth placed finishers combined - each of whom had touted themselves as the only man capable of beating George W Bush in November. In the event, it was the "electability" factor which swept Mr Kerry, a four-term senator and Vietnam war hero, to success. Mr Dean still generates the passion, but exit polls showed that his New England rival won hands down among the Democrats who believed that issues and policy were secondary to recapturing the White House. That desire also explained the record turn-out of 208,000, eclipsing the previous high of 160,000 who turned out in 1992, when Bill Clinton finished second here.

In his victory speech on Tuesday evening, Mr Kerry sounded like a man who has already won the nomination, not even mentioning his rivals and presenting himself as the ordained challenger to Mr Bush.

He warned the "interest-peddlers, the polluters, the special interests and the lobbyists" in Washington to start packing their bags. As for Mr Bush, he used one of the President's signature phrases, "Bring him on".

Mr Kerry may be jumping the gun, as his appeal in other parts of the country is still to be tested. The battle now moves to the seven states that hold primaries this Tuesday - South Carolina, Delaware, New Mexico, Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma and North Dakota - where the label of "Massachusetts liberal" may not sell so well.

But his consecutive victories in Iowa and New Hampshire are a stunning turnaround for a candidate all but written off a few weeks ago, and who trailed Mr Dean by 30 points in New Hampshire in December.

History too is on his side. The last two Democrats who pulled off the Iowa-New Hampshire double - Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Al Gore in 2000 - both went on to become the nominee and win the popular vote (if not, in Mr Gore's case, the White House) in the general election. "This could be wrapped up in a couple of weeks," said James Carville, the consultant who guided Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential bid.

Mr Kerry's rivals are vowing to fight on in every state, hoping that a topsy-turvy election season has more surprises in store. But they face problems. Mr Dean still has the money, but has now been beaten in two states he was expected to win. As Iowa demonstrated, his combative and radical style may not go down so well outside his native North East.

John Edwards, the North Carolina senator, is pinning his hopes on the South, conceding in a CNN interview that if he did not win South Carolina, where he was born, his candidacy would be dead. But, despite his surprisingly strong second-place finish in Iowa, Mr Edwards could do no better than fourth with 12 per cent in New Hampshire, pipped for third place by the retired general, Wesley Clark. However, the Clark impetus too has faded, after an early January surge that briefly catapulted him to second place.

In the last week of campaigning here the general - in his first ever election for public office - showed his political inexperience. Time and again, he was forced to explain why he was a Democrat at all, and clarify his position on several issues, including abortion. Now he needs at least one decent win on Tuesday to remain viable. Polls have showed General Clark running strongly in Oklahoma and Arizona, but Mr Kerry's victories are likely to change the picture.

For the time being at least, the Massachusetts senator has the so-called "three Ms'': money, media and momentum. Cash is again flooding in, enabling him to mount an imposing TV ad campaign in all seven states. Conversely, his rivals simply have to produce some wins; otherwise funds will dry up, forcing them to withdraw.

Moreover, top Democrats want a nominee to emerge quickly, so that the party can close ranks for the fight against Mr Bush. The pressure on a flagging candidate to pull out will be intense after Tuesday.

The outlook is bleak for Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut senator who had skipped the Iowa caucuses to concentrate on New Hampshire.

In the event, Mr Lieberman - a centrist who unequivocally supported the Iraq war - could manage only fifth place, with a total of 9 per cent. Gallantly, but almost farcically, he tried to parlay that into victory at a thinly attended post-election rally.