The race for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination appears to be tightening, just days before the first major test of the 2004 campaign, the Iowa presidential caucuses.
New public opinion polls indicate that the early Democratic contests in Iowa and New Hampshire are getting closer.
In Iowa, which holds its caucus vote on Monday, three candidates are within striking distance of the lead. They are former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.
In New Hampshire, which holds its first in the nation primary one week after Iowa, Retired General Wesley Clark appears to be gaining on Howard Dean in two new polls. The former Vermont governor has had a large lead in New Hampshire for months. General Clark is skipping the Iowa contest to focus on New Hampshire.
As the campaign intensifies, the candidates are getting increasingly negative in some of their speeches and advertising.
Howard Dean is now running a television advertisement reminding voters of his early opposition to the war in Iraq while some of his rivals supported it.
Dick Gephardt wrote the resolution to authorize war. John Kerry and John Edwards both voted for the war. "I opposed the war in Iraq and I am against spending another $87 billion there," says Mr. Dean in the ad.
Iraq and the economy continue to be the two main issues on the Democratic campaign trail. Congressman Richard Gephardt, who desperately needs a strong finish in Iowa to boost his campaign, says he has no regrets about his stance on the war.
"I don't apologize for that and I am not sorry that Saddam Hussein is gone," he said.
The polls do suggest some weakening of support for Howard Dean, the man who vaulted from relative obscurity a year ago to become the leader in national polls and fundraising among the nine Democratic candidates.
"He [Dean] has now sustained much more widespread criticism from his Democratic colleagues and much more intensive scrutiny from the press that has begun to soften his support," said political analyst Thomas Mann, who is with the Brookings Institution, a public policy research organization in Washington.
Mr. Dean did get a boost this week with a win in the largely symbolic primary in the District of Columbia. Most of the Democratic candidates ignored that primary and are focusing instead on the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.