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February Showdowns Will Make, Break Democratic Contenders

While the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls spend most of their time wooing caucus attendees in Iowa and primary voters in New Hampshire, the race for the nomination appears increasingly likely to be decided by roughly a dozen contests that will take place during a two-week period in February. [IMGCAP(1)]

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s surge has changed the dynamic of the Democratic contest and makes February absolutely critical for most of the Democratic presidential hopefuls.

The Democratic schedule includes at least six contests on Feb. 3 — primaries in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, Oklahoma and South Carolina, plus the New Mexico caucuses. North Dakota’s caucuses could land on that date as well.

Four days later, on Feb. 7, are caucuses in Michigan and Washington state. The next day, it’s Maine’s caucuses, followed two days later by the Virginia and Tennessee primaries and D.C.’s caucuses.

The month comes to a close with Wisconsin’s potentially decisive primary Feb. 17, followed by two contests that are unlikely to receive much attention, Idaho’s caucuses Feb. 24 and Utah’s Feb. 27 primary.

Although Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt’s early fundraising has been disappointing, the schedule continues to look like it will be a boon to his presidential bid. Two weeks after Iowa, where he continues as the favorite, Gephardt gets an easy win in his home state, followed by Michigan four days later and Wisconsin 10 days after that.

A Gephardt victory in Missouri won’t be greeted by the media with much more than a yawn. But the state’s 76 pledged delegates are the biggest prize of any of the other primary or caucus states until Michigan.

Gephardt’s labor support gives him a strong base in both Michigan, which is also critical to his strategy, and Wisconsin. And it could even help him in Oklahoma.

The February calendar also looks good for Dean if he comes out of New Hampshire with some momentum.

None of the Feb. 3 contests is a natural for Dean, but his campaign apparently is accelerating its efforts in New Mexico, where the state’s active Green movement would seem an obvious target, as well as in Arizona and Oklahoma.

Supporters of the former governor argue that he is particularly well-positioned in caucuses, where grassroots enthusiasm can translate into delegates. Caucuses in Washington state (which is still trying to finalize its plans) and Maine, in particular, look made-to-order for Dean.

The Maine caucuses have a history of quirkiness, which should help the Vermonter. Georgian Jimmy Carter won them in 1976 and then-Colorado Sen. Gary Hart did so in 1984. In 1992, former California Gov. Jerry Brown and former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas finished in a dead heat.

Dean also has opportunities in Wisconsin, with its liberal bastion of Madison. But his appeal in the state probably goes beyond ideology. It has often supported Democratic outsiders, whether of the left (George McGovern) or right (George Wallace).

Sen. John Edwards’ (N.C.) campaign continues to acknowledge that their man must win South Carolina’s primary. The state’s Southern locale and African American population guarantees that it will be the key test of Feb. 3 — assuming that the state party can raise the money and recruit the volunteers to pull off the event.

Edwards hopes that a win there will establish him as one of the three remaining contenders, along with Gephardt (assuming he wins Iowa) and either Sen. John Kerry or Dean. After South Carolina, Edwards may look toward Virginia and Tennessee on Feb. 10.

Like Edwards, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman is likely to enter February without a victory under his belt, so the Feb. 3 tests are equally crucial for him.

Lieberman’s allies are banking on a strong showing in Arizona or Oklahoma, two states where he has endorsements from state officeholders. Oklahoma looks like the 2000 vice presidential nominee’s strongest early state, but the national media may not read very much into a Lieberman win there.

Finally, Kerry is a top-tier candidate who is in an increasingly strange position because of Dean’s surge. On one hand, Kerry doesn’t have geographic niche appeal in any of the February contests (except possibly for Maine), and he is squeezed by Gephardt, an insider with blue-collar appeal, and Dean, an outsider with appeal among upscale liberals.

If Kerry finishes behind Dean in both Iowa and New Hampshire, he’ll need to jump-start his campaign in early February. It isn’t at all clear that he will be able to do that.

On the other hand, Kerry, more than anyone else in the race, appears to have the financial resources and national organization to compete in all of the February contests that matter. And if Dean’s bubble bursts before Feb. 3, the Massachusetts Senator could be a major beneficiary.

The remaining members of the field certainly could play a role in the race for the Democratic nomination (such as Al Sharpton in South Carolina), but none of them appears to have the financial muscle or depth of support to be competitive by the time the Democrats reach the February tests.

Rothenberg Political Report