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New Hampshire Primary

January 22, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: First the political lay of the land in New Hampshire tonight from Gwen Ifill in Manchester. Gwen, hello.

GWEN IFILL: Hi, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Based on the polls and the anecdotes, where do things stand tonight?

GWEN IFILL: Well, we have a debate tonight. That’s going to be the big test. The fact is that John Kerry is doing really well. There’s like three polls out now which show him in the lead over Howard Dean, and as you’ll recall, he wasn’t doing very well prior to Iowa. So he’s in a position now to really seal things.

Howard Dean, as we saw in the news summary, is still trying to get his footing. You notice he’s speaking in very low, modulated tones. He never takes off his suit jacket. He’s still trying to win voters back who have apparently gone elsewhere since last Monday, or at least are taking a second and third look at his candidacy.

JIM LEHRER: Are you talking to some former Dean supporters up there?

GWEN IFILL: Everywhere I go, Jim. People come up to you and they say, “You know, I really was a Dean guy until last month, until last week, until last Monday.” And when you ask them, “Well, what are you doing at this Edwards rally, what are you doing at this Clark or Kerry rally?” They say, “Well, he’s making –” and this is almost to a man and a woman, they say this. “He’s making me a little nervous right now. I just want to see what else is out there.”

There are also a lot of people who were interested in working with Kerry and being with Kerry before who now are thinking, well, maybe he has a chance to win, and the electability factor is kicking in.

JIM LEHRER: The Dean thing, his emotional performance the other night in Iowa, people are making jokes about that. But what you’re saying is a lot of people don’t see it as a joke; this is seen as a serious liability for him, right?

GWEN IFILL: Absolutely. On talk radio all over New Hampshire and probably all over the country, you’re hearing people talk about Dean’s “I have a scream” speech, you know, but that’s what they’re laughing about.

But what they’re serious about here on the ground are voters, independent voters, Republican voters who can still change parties and vote on the day of this primary who are saying, “Is this the guy we want near the button?” What it also seems to be doing is unearthing some of the worries that a lot of these voters had about him, which weren’t fully realized, may not be fair, but this is what they’re thinking about.

JIM LEHRER: As you said, Kerry is number one in the polls now. And you mentioned Dean. Now, what about Edwards, how’s he doing? Has he gotten any bounce from his second place showing in Iowa?

GWEN IFILL: Actually, he has. And the interesting thing about John Edwards is that he was number two in Iowa. He’s still in these polls somewhere around number four, but he’s growing slowly and his crowds at his events, last night we were with him in Portsmouth, N.H., and he had more people — we’re going to see some of that I think shortly on the program — he had more people there than he’s ever seen at a rally in New Hampshire. And they were there and listening, and it was the kind of setting where he does well, talking one on one to voters, taking questions.

John Kerry’s doing the same sort of thing now. So you see them all trying to position themselves using some of the same language that worked so well for Howard Dean, actually, railing against lobbyists in Washington, saying that they are the outsider, John Edwards’ case, he’s saying, “Listen, I’m a senator but I haven’t been in Washington long and I can kick all the lobbyists out” and using that same outsider’s appeal that Howard Dean mastered to try to get those voters.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, there’s Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman. What signs are you seeing of theirs?

GWEN IFILL: Wesley Clark actually is doing fairly well, even though the poll numbers still show him sliding, that a lot of the voters who seemed to have been rethinking Howard Dean are not necessarily going to him.

On the other hand, he has become — we were here I guess a month or so ago following Wesley Clark around as a campaigner, he’s much more at ease, he is drawing crowds, and he is trying to figure out how does he, as the retired general, compete against the Vietnam veteran war hero, John Kerry and so he’s been trying to find his footing. He said a couple of times, “Well John Kerry was a junior officer and I was an executive.” Words he has been eating all day today.

JIM LEHRER: And what about Lieberman?

GWEN IFILL: Joe Lieberman, you know when they talk about this being a toss-up among four candidates, his name just never comes up. We asked him about that it had today and he said, “Well, the voters have it to decide as we saw in Iowa — until the voters vote, it doesn’t really matter what the polls say.” But he’s got very small crowds, he has got a small press entourage as a result, and had he seems to be kind of cheerfully forging ahead. But there is no sign of movement.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Now, tonight it’s kind of hard to overstate the importance of this debate tonight, in other words, too, right?

GWEN IFILL: Yeah, all eyes are going to be on Howard Dean to see how he handles himself after all of the bad fallout. He’s had a particularly bad week. And all eyes are going to be on John Kerry to see if any of the other candidates feel they now have to take him down by bringing out negative things about him, whether that will rattle him, whether his new focus on a being an optimistic candidate is going to hold forth when everybody’s … when you’re suddenly the front-runner and everybody’s got their beat on you, what happens.

So all of these candidates have so much to prove tonight, and this is the last debate between now and the time voting happens next Tuesday, so there’s going to be a lot of interpretation coming out of it.

JIM LEHRER: Absolutely, and we will do it at this very place tomorrow night. Gwen, thank you very much.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you, Jim.