War hero Kerry leaves Dean bloodied

DEMOCRATIC presidential candidates opened their sprint to the New Hampshire primary yesterday with newly minted front-runner John Kerry pitching his experience and John Edwards laying claim to electricity in a contest thrown wide open by the leadoff Iowa caucuses.

Dick Gephardt went home to Missouri to drop out of the race later in the day. Officials close to the congressman said he will not endorse any of his rivals any time soon.

In the first blush after Mr Kerry's comeback victory in Iowa, when he joined Mr Edwards in burying the nationally-favoured Howard Dean in third place, the candidates avoided going after each other by name.

Instead, they gingerly shadowboxed.

Mr Kerry, a four-term Massachusetts senator, talked up his seasoned service and said he would draw that distinction against his rivals, political newcomer Wesley Clark, former Vermont governor Dean and first-term senator Edwards of North Carolina among them.

"I also have the experience to make America safer and stronger in the world during a very dangerous time, and I think people want a steady, tested hand at the helm of state," Mr Kerry said in a victory tour of the morning talk shows. "I can provide that."

Iowa propelled Mr Edwards from a nearly second-tier candidate to a strong second-place finisher and he was energised.

"It's a huge boost," he said. "It's like a fire spreading over Iowa over the last two weeks and to finish the way we did was extraordinary."

The race now centres on the mutual backyard of Mr Kerry and Mr Dean, with the New Hampshire primary taking place on January 27. The battle will be joined by retired general Clark and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who skipped Iowa.

President George W Bush was preparing for his State of the Union speech last night, but White House officials said advisers kept him updated on the Democratic race. White House communications director Dan Bartlett congratulated Mr Kerry and Mr Edwards and said of the Democrats: "They have 17 contests over the next five weeks, so it looks like the rollercoaster is just beginning."

Mr Edwards and Mr Dean were back on the ground in New Hampshire by 3.30am, holding rallies.

"I used to be the front-runner when I went out to Iowa, but I'm not the front-runner any more," Mr Dean said at Portsmouth. "But New Hampshire has a great tradition of supporting the underdog. So guess what? Let's go get them."

On the talk shows, Dean found himself having to explain his bellowing, theatrical exuberance of the night before. "We will not quit now or ever," he shouted to supporters, his hoarse voice rising to a scream.

"You've got to have some fun in this business," he said yesterday and promised more.

Mr Edwards was jubilant when he touched down at Concord. "Can you feel it?" he asked supporters. "The people of New Hampshire are going to feel it a week from tonight."

With 98% of the Iowa precincts reporting, Mr Kerry had 38%, Mr Edwards 32%, Mr Dean 18% and Mr Gephardt 11%. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio was at 1%.

Clark quickly set his sights on the new front-runner. "He's got military background, but nobody in this race has got the kind of background I've got," said Mr Clark, a retired four-star army general and one-time NATO supreme allied commander.

The turnaround in Iowa raised the prospect of a protracted nomination fight instead of the crisp contest intended when Democrats front-loaded their primary calendar. Mr Kerry has lots of his own money to spend; Mr Dean, Mr Edwards and Mr Clark have raised millions of dollars.

Until the final days of the Iowa campaign, Mr Dean had dominated the national contest with his blistering rhetoric against the Iraq war and Mr Bush's tax cuts, his money-raising prowess and his wildfire-paced, internet-powered insurgency against Washington, all of that topped with growing endorsements from the Democratic establishment.

But in the first votes that matter in the 2004 presidential election, Iowans opted for the experience, steady demeanour and nuanced positions of Mr Kerry, 60, and dashed any sense that Mr Dean's climb to the nomination was preordained.

"Of course, I'd rather come in first, but we didn't and we're alive," said Mr Dean, who has raised more than $40 million.

Some of Mr Dean's rivals were unrelenting in their attacks, and his temper flared more than once under the barrage. Mr Gephardt, in particular, went after him with negative ads, and they had an effect, but not the result the Missouri congressman intended.

Mr Kerry began his campaign as a presumed favourite, better known than most rivals and a Democrat with credentials, both as a Vietnam hero and a leader of the protest movement against that conflict. But he struggled to find his footing and sell his this-but-that positions to Democrats wowed by Mr Dean's certitudes.

Ultimately, however, Iowans backed a candidate who voted in favour of Mr Bush's decision to go to war but criticised the president's prosecution of it and who wants to eliminate the Bush tax cuts going to the richest Americans, but keep the rest of the tax-cut package.

Mr Kerry scored strongly across a spectrum of political leanings and age groups, according to a survey of caucus-goers.

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