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Inside Politics

Kerry rejects 'front-runner' label

Poll shows him with large lead ahead of New Hampshire primary

Polling shows John Kerry and Howard Dean in the lead positions a day before the New Hampshire primary voting.
Polling shows John Kerry and Howard Dean in the lead positions a day before the New Hampshire primary voting.

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MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (CNN) -- As New Hampshire voters prepare to cast ballots Tuesday in the nation's first presidential primary, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is rejecting the label of Democratic Party front-runner, despite polls showing him with a strong lead in the Granite State.

"I still resist it, and purposely, because I was so far behind a few weeks ago, and things change," he told CNN on Sunday.

"We had to fight our way back in Iowa, and I'm still fighting for every vote I that can get here in New Hampshire.

"I want to show New Hampshire citizens how hard I'm prepared to work."

Kerry also played down a new Newsweek poll that showed him tied with President Bush in a head-to-head matchup.

But he took issue with efforts by Republicans to paint his voting record as more liberal than his Massachusetts colleague, Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy.

"That is so funny," he said on "Fox News Sunday." "I'm complimented that they're attacking me that way. ... It proves what I'm saying, that I'm the strongest person to go against George Bush, or they wouldn't be attacking me this early.

"As they say in the South, that dog won't hunt." (Full story)

A Kerry campaign adviser told CNN on Sunday that "South Carolina and Missouri will be among the first stops" for Kerry after Tuesday's primary.

Both states hold primaries a week after New Hampshire. The contest in Missouri is considered wide open after favorite son Rep. Dick Gephardt dropped out of the presidential race.

South Carolina is where Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who finished a strong second in the Iowa caucuses last week, expects to break into the winning column.

The latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup tracking polls showed that among likely Democratic voters in New Hampshire, Kerry was the choice of 38 percent, compared with 25 percent for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, 12 percent for Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, 10 percent for retired Gen. Wesley Clark and 9 percent for Edwards.

Support for Dean -- who once led by more than 20 points in New Hampshire -- appears to have stabilized, after dropping precipitously after his third-place finish in Iowa, which was capped by a much-lampooned growling election night speech.

"There's no question that the finish in Iowa was not what we wanted, but we've been working here and feel like we're really on the move," Karen Hicks, Dean's New Hampshire state director, said Sunday.

Lieberman, buoyed by a 5-point rise during the past week that has put him in the hunt for a third-place finish, coined a new word -- "Joementum" -- to describe the increasing interest in his campaign. (Full story)

He attributed his better poll numbers to his performance in a debate Thursday night in which he tried to carve out a niche as the centrist in the race. (Full story)

"The experts were saying, 'This guy is nowhere in the race,'" Lieberman said Sunday in an interview on CNN's "Late Edition."

"Since the debate Thursday night, the people of New Hampshire are making up their minds. And you know what? They're sick of the outside experts telling them who's going to do what in this primary on Tuesday.

"Thank God they have the last word."

As Lieberman enjoyed a bump during the past week, the tracking polls showed a sharp drop for Clark, who had the support of 21 percent of likely voters before the Iowa caucuses but only 10 percent now.

Sunday, the former NATO supreme commander, who skipped Iowa to concentrate on New Hampshire, conceded he would not win Tuesday's primary, although he added that "I wouldn't rule out anything anywhere."

"My sense of the race is, there's still a lot of undecided voters out there," he said on NBC's "Meet The Press." "They're looking at all of us, and I'm just having a great time talking to the voters and telling them my story and listening to theirs."

Clark said he would take the campaign on to primaries and caucuses in states beyond New Hampshire, saying "we've got good organizations in South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Michigan, Wisconsin."

"We've got a lot of strength. We've got an incredibly strong basis of support, especially in the South, but really across the country," he said.

Countdown to Tuesday

As the final weekend of the New Hampshire campaign drew to a close, the Democratic candidates spent Sunday trooping across the state in frigid weather, where temperatures were in the single digits.

In Nashua, Edwards -- trying to ride the bounce from his surprise second-place finish in Iowa -- drew an enthusiastic crowd that overflowed the hall into an adjacent room.

"Together, you and I are going to change this country, starting Tuesday " he said. "I came here today to ask every person in this room ... to vote for me on Tuesday, to get your friends, your family and your neighbors to the polls to vote for me."

Across town, Clark drew similarly exuberant supporters, who did the wave as they waited for their candidate.

"We're going to provide leadership that will pull this country together -- north, south, east and west, Democrats, independents. I'm going to invite moderate Republicans in, and I'm not even going to ask them to repent," he said. "I'm the only person in this race that can do it, I'll tell you that."

Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, spent part of the afternoon knocking on doors in the neighborhood where they rented an apartment for the New Hampshire campaign.

Earlier, speaking to supporters at his headquarters, Lieberman tweaked the Clark campaign, noting that while "one of the other candidates has Madonna, I have Hadassah."

The pop star has endorsed Clark.

The Newsweek poll showed Kerry with 49 percent support to Bush's 46 percent in a hypothetical matchup, a margin that fell within the sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

But Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said other polls showed Bush with a seven point lead over Kerry, and he noted that even in the Newsweek poll, a majority of Americans approved of the president's job performance.

"At the end of the day, the fact is that most voters appreciate the president's strong and principled leadership, and they share his views on critical issues involving our national security, creation of jobs and who shares their values," Gillespie said on CNN.

"So I'm confident that at the end of the day, the president will be re-elected."

CNN's Kelly Wallace, Jeanne Meserve, Phil Hirschkorn and Laura Bernardini contributed to this report.


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