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Kerry’s Backers Turn Up Heat

In the wake of his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign is making it clear to Members of Congress that the time is now to get behind his presidential candidacy even as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s campaign faced more turmoil.

“They smell blood,” said one Democratic consultant familiar with the Kerry campaign’s aggressive recruiting tactics.

Both Kerry and Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.), his most high-profile Congressional backer, have spoken directly with Dean’s Congressional supporters, urging them to switch allegiances, according to informed Democratic sources.

Attempting to shake up his campaign late Wednesday, Dean named Roy Neel, one-time top aide to former Vice President Al Gore, to serve as CEO of the campaign. That sparked the departure of Dean’s top strategist, Joe Trippi.

Kerry’s backers, meanwhile, are trying to expand his support among centrists and Southerners by pushing hard to get uncommitted moderates on board.

Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (Tenn.), an early Kerry supporter, said he spoke with conservative Reps. Chris John (La.) and Allen Boyd (Fla.) Wednesday morning about “what kind of things Senator Kerry needs to be talking about” as he campaigns in the seven states that vote Feb. 3.

Boyd said that he would withhold an endorsement until after Feb. 3, however, so that he can see “how [the race] plays out in the South.”

The results in Iowa and New Hampshire have sent shockwaves around Capitol Hill as both Senators and House Members who represent states hosting primaries or caucuses next week come under increasing pressure to choose a candidate, while those who have already taken sides rev up their political machines for a final push.

The pressure is particularly intense in Missouri, Arizona and South Carolina, which are seen as Tuesday’s three crown jewels.

Missouri has the most delegates at stake (74), while Arizona has presented itself as the first state in the process without a “native son” candidate.

South Carolina is the first Southern state on the primary slate and has a significant black population. That’s why Kerry backers were cheered by the fact that the Senator on Wednesday picked up the backing of Rep. James Clyburn, who originally backed Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.).

Rep. William Lacy Clay, who served as the national co-chairman of Gephardt’s now-defunct presidential campaign, said he has spoken either directly or through surrogates with the remaining presidential candidates but will not endorse before Tuesday.

“I will let loyal Democratic voters speak and then I will follow their lead,” said Clay, who said he plans to attend the convention as an unpledged superdelegate.

The other major player in the Missouri delegation, Rep. Ike Skelton, endorsed Sen. John Edwards on Tuesday, bolstering the North Carolina Senator’s appeal among rural voters.

Skelton said in a statement that Edwards’ “small town roots resonate well with those of us who are from rural parts of the Show Me State.”

For now, Kerry has a solid advantage in Missouri. A poll released Wednesday showed him leading Edwards 25 percent to 9 percent. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was in third with 6 percent support.

In Arizona, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Dean supporter, admitted that Kerry’s success in Iowa and New Hampshire will influence voters when they head to the polls Tuesday.

“The more that we read and see and hear about the momentum that is behind Senator Kerry right now, that has an effect,” said Grijalva. He sees the race as a “tight” three-way contest between Dean, Kerry and retired Gen. Wesley Clark. He added that Dean needs a win Tuesday and that “Arizona and New Mexico provide him with the best tandem.”

Grijalva has already cut a radio ad endorsing Dean that is running in the southern portion of the state and said he expected to leave Washington today to head home through primary day.

Rep. Ed Pastor, Arizona’s only other House Democrat, threw his support to Kerry Monday night after first backing Gephardt.

“As a candidate [Kerry] will be out there running a great race,” said Pastor, who plans to campaign for the Massachusetts Senator this weekend in Arizona.

With the intense media scrutiny on South Carolina, Clyburn’s decision to back Kerry is seen as an important step for the Massachusetts Senator as he attempts to quickly sew up the nomination.

Clyburn is the leading power broker among black voters in the state, which may comprise as much as half of the Democratic primary vote Tuesday.

Clyburn on Wednesday confirmed that he will throw his support and “active network” behind Kerry at a press conference in Columbia today. But, he had kind words for Edwards as well.

“They will finish one-two,” Clyburn said. “Which is one and which is two, I don’t know.”

Rep. John Spratt, the state’s senior House Democrat and a close ally of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), is “still shopping” for a candidate, according to a spokesman.

“He has narrowed it down to Kerry, Edwards and Clark,” said Spratt spokesman Chuck Fant. “A choice could also be none of the above.”

One South Carolina Democratic operative said that “it would make sense that [Spratt] would go with Kerry because of the national security issues, out of deference to Fritz and the momentum thing.” The state’s senior Senator, Fritz Hollings, endorsed Kerry last week.

Looking beyond Tuesday to the Feb. 7 Michigan caucuses, which are seen as a major battleground in the fight for the support of organized labor, Kerry appears to have a foothold in securing the support of Sen. Carl Levin and Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

In an interview Tuesday, Levin said he “hoped” to endorse prior to the Michigan caucuses and suggested that Kerry and Clark were the only two in the field who possess the needed international experiences to go toe-to-toe with Bush on global issues.

“It’s a significant advantage to have military, foreign policy and national security experience,” he said.

Levin’s brother, Rep. Sander Levin (Mich.), attended a Kerry meeting Wednesday aimed at undecided House Members but would not commit to the Massachusetts Democrat.

Bolstered by Kerry’s stunning comeback, Rep. Ed Markey (Mass.), the leader of the Senator’s whip team, said that “everyone is being talked to” on Capitol Hill about lining up behind Kerry.

“We are letting them know that down the line Senator Kerry will be very interested in having them with him,” Markey said.

Ford noted, however, that Member endorsements will take care of themselves if Kerry can sweep the contests next week. “We have got to win four states Tuesday and then everyone will come on board,” he said.

Erin P. Billings and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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