Polls show Dean surging ahead

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The Independent US

The Presidential candidate Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, is leading his nearest Democratic challenger by 13 points in the crucial state of New Hampshire.

A new poll suggests that, despite the entrance into the race of General Wesley Clark, and concerted attacks by his rivals, Mr Dean has managed to keep a two-digit gap between himself and John Kerry, Senator for Massachusetts.

In a poll for The Boston Globe released on Sunday, Mr Dean received the support of 37 per cent of those questioned in New Hampshire, while Mr Kerry had the backing of 24 per cent. A month ago Mr Dean had a 12-point advantage in the state, which holds its primary election on 27 January.

On Sunday night, the field of Democratic candidates mounted fresh attacks against President George Bush - and each other - during the latest televised debate.

Mr Kerry, who has attracted widespread criticism because of his apparently ambiguous position on Iraq, tried to explain his decision to back Mr Bush's initial request for the use of military force as well as his current position, opposing a request for $87bn (£51bn) to pay for the costs of occupation.

General Clark, a former Nato supreme commander, faced questions on whether he would have voted to support the war and the $87bn request for Congressional funding. "President Bush said he was going to get Osama bin Laden, dead or alive. Instead, he went after Saddam Hussein. He doesn't have eitherone of them today," he told the audience in Detroit.

With just 12 weeks to the first electoral showdown - in Iowa and then in New Hampshire - the candidates are increasing the level of attacks on each other. Observers say this is likely to remain the strategy.