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US Democratic Candidates Gear Up for Early Primaries - 2003-12-02

Less than two months from now, Americans will formally begin the process of choosing a president in 2004. The nine Democrats vying for the right to challenge President Bush next November are campaigning hard in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

The cheering is for Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, one of nine Democrats running for president.

Some of his young but enthusiastic volunteers are out to wish him well as he arrives at the New Hampshire State Capitol to file the official papers necessary to run in the January 27 New Hampshire primary.

"I want to say that as far as I am concerned, you 'Liebermaniacs' come up with the best cheers in American politics," he said. "But look, it's about your future, it's about the American Dream that I just experienced by signing up officially to be a candidate of the New Hampshire Democratic Primary with my mom right by my side."

The New Hampshire Primary is a crucial test on the road to the White House. Beginning in 1952, the candidates who won the presidency either finished first or second in the New Hampshire Primary.

But winning in New Hampshire means spending a lot of time in the state and winning over notoriously skeptical voters, one at a time. It is a task even daunting to retired U.S. army general and former NATO supreme commander Wesley Clark, who is trying to win over some New Hampshire business leaders at a breakfast meeting.

"People really take you seriously and they take their politics seriously," he said. "One reporter once wrote, he said, 'New Hampshire voters know how to size them up and lay them out.' And that is fine with me," he said. "I mean, I have been shot in Vietnam, I took three or four rounds, depending on how the doctors look at the scars and the wounds, and so tough questions are kind of what you expect and I think that is pretty fair."

After the speech, it's time for General Clark to come face to face with the voters.

Voter: How come the two of you don't look tired?
Clark: Don't look tired? Because we are very energized by the process of meeting people. I mean, we are both, my wife and I are both terrible extroverts.
Voter: I know, we can tell.
Clark: And we just love to talk.

Expert Michael Cheney points out New Hampshire voters are used to meeting the presidential candidates in person and sizing them up. He is Executive Director of the New Hampshire Political Library.

"The crowds that surround candidates at events like this are because New Hampshire people are taking the opportunity to get out and ask face-to-face questions of these candidates that get to a little bit more of what makes them tick and their character more apparent," said Mr. Cheney, the executive director of the New Hampshire Political Library.

Halfway across the state, along New Hampshire's seacoast, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is trying to re-ignite his faltering presidential hopes by hosting a chili dinner at a firehouse.

Senator Kerry spends much of his time trying to recruit new supporters, including one man who wants a larger United Nations role in the rebuilding of Iraq.

Voter: We are going to get stuck over there (In Iraq). We need assistance.
Kerry: I should have said more about it. But we are going to get the U.N. involved and it is the only way to reduce our involvement there legitimately. I should have said a little more about it, probably.
Voter: Well, at least you are on the right track. Thank you.

Among those listening to Senator Kerry is schoolteacher Steve Bauer. Because he lives in New Hampshire, he has had the opportunity to listen to three of the Democratic candidates over the past ten days.

"And part of this is to find out where they stand and for me to get a feeling about who I want to vote for," he said. "So I have got to learn about John Kerry. Is he electable? How does he stand for education, since I'm a teacher. I know he is a good environmental candidate. But what are his educational stances and how do I feel about him? You know, is this somebody I want to vote for and want to work for?"

Senator Kerry is from neighboring Massachusetts and was a favorite to win the New Hampshire Primary. But he now finds himself trailing former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, whose opposition to the war in Iraq and blunt-spoken style have won over many of New Hampshire's liberal Democratic voters.

Voter: Give them hell, Howard.
Dean: Thank you. You know what they say, what [former President] Harry Truman used to say, 'I don't give them hell, I just tell them the truth and the Republicans think it is hell.'"

Mr. Dean's early opposition to the Iraq war has set him apart from most of his rivals, many of whom initially supported the use of force against Saddam Hussein.

But Howard Dean has also cultivated the image of a political outsider, something that has proven effective in winning over New Hampshire voters in the past.

Professor Dante Scala, a political expert at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, says, "I think they are willing to give an outsider, someone with new ideas, a chance. And I think we have seen that this year with Howard Dean. I think we also give points for candidates who are straight talkers and who don't sound like Washington politicians and inside the beltway and so forth."

Iowa begins the presidential nominating process with its party caucuses on January 19. The New Hampshire Primary follows just a week later - on January 27.

At the moment, public opinion polls indicate Howard Dean is ahead in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Analysts say Dean victories in both early contests would make him the clear favorite to become the Democratic presidential nominee and take on President Bush in next November's election.