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Inside Politics

Kerry turns disarray into victory, setting stage for New Hampshire

Kerry hugs wife Teresa Heinz Kerry at a victory rally Monday night in Des Moines.
Kerry hugs wife Teresa Heinz Kerry at a victory rally Monday night in Des Moines.

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DES MOINES, Iowa (CNN) -- Just two months ago, Sen. John Kerry's moribund campaign was in such disarray that he took the extraordinary step of firing his campaign manager mid-race.

He was far behind Howard Dean in New Hampshire and behind both Dean and Rep. Dick Gephardt in Iowa. Politicians and pundits alike were pondering what went wrong for the man once thought a favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But Monday night, he answered his critics with a clear-cut win in the Iowa precinct caucuses, positioning himself for a showdown next week in New Hampshire with Dean, the former Vermont governor, and retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

Standing on a stage in Des Moines before cheering supporters, the Massachusetts senator christened himself "Comeback Kerry," echoing the "comeback kid" line former President Bill Clinton used to great effect while battling scandal during the 1992 primary season.

"Last night, the New England Patriots won. Tonight, this New Englander won, and you've sent me on the way to the Super Bowl," he said, in a raspy voice strained by days of intense campaigning.

Kerry alluded to his own remarkable renaissance on the campaign trail, after several difficult and frustrating months.

"I have listened to you, and I've learned from you," he said. "You have made me a better candidate, and I thank you for that." (Transcript)

After months of being pounded by Dean for supporting a resolution authorizing President Bush to use military force in Iraq, Kerry turned the tables in the closing weeks of the campaign, pointing out his national security experience as a senator and a Vietnam war veteran.

At stop after stop across Iowa, he reminded audiences that with the country facing war and terrorism, now was no time to ask Americans to elect an inexperienced commander-in-chief -- such as Dean, the former governor of a small state, or North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who has served but a single term in the Senate and who finished second to Kerry in Iowa.

"We're going to need a nominee of our party who has the credibility to be able to stand up to George Bush with the legitimacy and the experience so that we as a party can convince America we know how to make this country safer than they do," Kerry said.

In the end, Kerry's vote in favor of the war resolution didn't hurt him in Iowa. While three out of four Democratic caucus-goers said they didn't support the war, Kerry beat Dean by 10 percentage points among those voters, according to entrance polls.

Kerry also pounded both Dean and Gephardt for suggesting that all of President Bush's tax cuts should be repealed, including those targeting the middle class. In one debate, he even made the charge that Republicans would make in the fall -- that repealing those tax cuts was, in essence, raising taxes.

But in his victory speech, Kerry largely spared his Democratic rivals, aiming his fire instead squarely at Bush.

The president has been on the side of "powerful interests," indulging in a "creed of greed," Kerry charged. Bush's foreign policy is "arrogant, inept, reckless," he said.

"We came from behind, and we came for the fight. And now, I have a special message for the special interests that have a home in the Bush White House -- we're coming, you're going, and don't let the door hit you on the way out," he said.

Prior to Monday's victory, polls showed Kerry trailing fellow New Englander Dean in New Hampshire -- although the gap has closed from two months ago -- and battling Clark for second place.

Now, the question will be whether what happened in Iowa can transform the race in the Granite State to Kerry's advantage, or whether Monday was just a blip along Dean's drive to the nomination.

"I'm looking forward to a great race in New Hampshire, and we're going to be in full stride," Kerry told CNN's Larry King. ('s interactive Election Calendar)

However, if history is any guide, a victory in Iowa isn't always a ticket to the Democratic nomination -- or the White House.

Of the last seven Democratic caucus winners, four went on to win the nomination, while three did not. Of those four, only one -- Jimmy Carter in 1976 -- went on to win the presidency.

The only two Iowa winners to go on to win in New Hampshire were Carter and Al Gore in 2000.

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