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Dems get last words in before N.H. primary

Kerry leads in polls, picks up endorsements

Howard Dean addresses an audience in New Hampshire on Thursday.
Howard Dean addresses an audience in New Hampshire on Thursday.

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MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (CNN) -- As the seven Democratic presidential candidates faced off in their only debate before the New Hampshire primary, new polls showed Sen. John Kerry opening a lead over former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Five days before the campaign season's first primary, Kerry also picked up several endorsements, including support from two major newspapers in his home state of Massachusetts.

Kerry led Dean 30 percent to 25 percent among likely Democratic voters in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup tracking poll released Thursday. They were followed by retired Gen. Wesley Clark with the support of 18 percent of likely voters; Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina with 11 percent; and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut with 8 percent.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio trailed with 4 percent support, while fewer than 1 percent of likely voters backed civil rights activist Al Sharpton.

Other polls showed Kerry with an even wider lead.(Full story ) Kerry, however, downplayed his front-runner status Thursday.

"What I want New Hampshire voters to understand is I'm prepared to fight for them in the White House just as hard as I fought in Iowa for their support -- and just as hard as I'm going to fight in New Hampshire for their support," he told reporters on his campaign bus.

The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald -- newspapers whose polls both had Kerry ahead of Dean by 10 points -- endorsed Kerry, with the Globe calling him "a man of even temperament and abiding Democratic values."

Kerry also picked up the support of Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings of South Carolina, a move that could help Kerry in that state's February 3 contest.(CNN.com's interactive Election Calendar)

Edwards' campaign said it wasn't too concerned about the endorsement, noting that it has "a strong network of elected officials in South Carolina."

"We have a lot of respect for Senator Hollings," said Edwards spokesman Roger Salazar. "We look forward to working with him when we are the nominee."

Dean -- who had been the front-runner in New Hampshire for months before Kerry's come-from-behind win in Iowa -- tried to bounce back from his third-place showing there by renewing his complaints about "Washington insiders" who have failed to deliver on their promises. (Results of the Iowa caucuses)

"Iowa didn't go well for us. I wish it had gone better," he said. "But New Hampshire has a history of turning that around when they believe in somebody who will stand up for what they believe in and worry about what is right instead of what's popular."

Dean was still trying to shake off three days of criticism of the impassioned speech he gave after the Iowa caucuses, joking that he was hoarse "from my screeching in Iowa."

Comedians and DJs have made hay with clips of his hoarse, fist-pumping address, punctuated by a shrill battle cry. But Dean said he was trying to "show his appreciation" for the volunteers who had worked for his campaign there.

In New Hampshire, he added, "There might be a little less fist-pumping."

Clark, meanwhile, took a few minutes to bag groceries at a Goffstown supermarket Thursday. Cashier Carolyn Creeden said the former NATO supreme commander was "pretty good at it," despite dropping a woman's bag of cookies during a discussion of the new Joint Strike Fighter.

Edwards told students at Dartmouth College in Hanover that his 1998 campaign for the Senate against a Republican incumbent showed he can win elections in a GOP-leaning South.

"The South is not George Bush's back yard -- it's my back yard," Edwards said. "And I will beat George W. Bush in my back yard."

Lieberman said Thursday night's debate will be important -- "but it's not a make-or-break moment."

"My strategy for tonight is to be myself -- to let the people of New Hampshire see someone who has 30 years inside them," Lieberman said.

Dean and his wife, Judith, will be interviewed by ABC's news program "PrimeTime Thursday" after the debate. Campaign chairman Steve Grossman told CNN that the candidate "is going to show a different side" in that interview.

The debate is at St. Anselm College in Manchester. The forum begins at 8 p.m. ET.

CNN's Carol Cratty, Adam Levine and Phil Hirschkorn contributed to this report.


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