It's time for N.H. voters to make decision
Wesley Clark got an early victory after the first votes were cast today.
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- The pancake breakfasts, lunchtime diner stops and supper-hour chili feeds are finished in New Hampshire, where the Democratic presidential candidates await the voters' verdict on their campaign fare in the first primary of 2004.
"The preliminaries are over," Sen. John Edwards told a theater full of supporters Monday night as he, fellow Sens. John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman, Howard Dean and Wesley Clark neared the end of a long and costly primary campaign.
"Tomorrow you pick a president."
Or at least try.
At stake were not only 22 national convention delegates, but the hope of incalculable political momentum for the winner in the race to pick a Democratic challenger to President Bush.
The first votes were cast in ritual fashion shortly after midnight in the northern hamlets of Dixville Notch and Hart's Location. Clark had 14, Kerry eight, Edwards and Dean four each and Lieberman one.
All five of the major rivals arranged a last round of appearances during the day, capping a campaign that also included at least $9 million in television advertising.
The final pre-primary polls rated Kerry the favorite in a state that has upset more than its share of front-runners over the years.
"A few weeks ago this campaign was on the endangered species list," Kerry said Monday, referring to his startling comeback a week ago in the Iowa caucuses.
This time, it was Dean who campaigned for a surprise.
"I'm not sure it's a dead heat, but it's close and it's closing very fast," the former Vermont governor said, struggling to steady a campaign off balance since his third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses and subsequent highly animated appearance before supporters.
After the heated exchanges of Iowa, the final eight days of the New Hampshire campaign were mild by comparison. Scarcely a jab was thrown in a debate last week, as if the candidates decided that Iowa voters had punished Dean and Rep. Dick Gephardt for an outbreak of attack politics.
Gephardt dropped out of the race on the day after the caucuses, and New Hampshire has historically sent also-rans to the sidelines as well.
Given the stakes, the civility wore thin in the last day or two of campaigning.
"Foreign policy experience depends on patience and judgment," Dean said Monday. "I question Senator Kerry's judgment," he said in a continuation of his challenge to Kerry's support of last year's invasion of Iraq and his earlier opposition to the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
Kerry left it to an aide, Stephanie Cutter, to respond.
"Howard Dean wouldn't know good judgment on foreign policy if he fell over it. Remember, this is the same man who has said that the nation was not safer with the capture of Saddam Hussein, said we shouldn't take sides in the Middle East and that Osama bin Laden should get a jury trial," she said.
Dean also dismissively lumped Kerry, Edwards and Lieberman together. "I'm not here to pick a fight with" the three members of Congress, he said, "All I'm saying is Washington is a place where sitting on a committee is considered to be experience."
Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran, flew by helicopter around the state Monday, making six stops before winding up at his Manchester headquarters late at night.
Dean has campaigned energetically for the votes of women in recent days, and Kerry wasn't conceding anything.
"I'm the only candidate running for president who hasn't played games, fudged around" on the issue of abortion, he said.
"If you believe that choice is a constitutional right, and I do, and if you believe that Roe v. Wade is the embodiment of that right ... I will not appoint a justice to the Supreme Court of the United States who will undo that right."
Aides to Dean and Edwards both took exception to Kerry's claim.
"Edwards has had a 100 percent record supporting a woman's right to choose," spokesman Roger Salazar said.
Edwards, who finished a strong second in Iowa last week, jabbed at Kerry as part of what aides described as an effort to finish no lower than third.
"It's one thing to talk about special interests," he said. "It's something else to do something about it." He emphasized he was not attacking Kerry, a Massachusetts senator. "It's a difference between Senator Kerry and me."
Clark also sought to position himself as apart from Washington.
"I'm an outsider. I'm not part of the problem in Washington. I've never taken money from a lobbyist. I've never cut a deal for votes," he said.
His campaign said lobbyists have donated roughly $20,000 to Clark's candidacy.
Lagging in the polls, Lieberman sought support from independents who helped Sen. John McCain of Arizona to victory in the 2000 Republican primary.
"It matters a lot to me that a lot of McCainiacs in New Hampshire have become Liebermaniacs," he said at a rally at the statehouse in Concord.
"They don't give a damn about the polls in New Hampshire," he said, then laughed and added, "I do want to mention parenthetically we are going up in the polls.
McCain, meanwhile, campaigned as a surrogate for Bush, whom he defeated handily in the state four years ago.