Now it's time to hear from the voters in New Hampshire

Ballot clerk Dorothy Matthews gives a ballot paper to a New Hampshire voter at the Pelham Memorial School in Pelham, N.H. on New Hampshire primary day, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2004.

AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki
Published: Tuesday, January 27, 2004 at 10:34 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 27, 2004 at 10:34 a.m.

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - John Kerry and Howard Dean elbowed their way toward the finish line of the New Hampshire primary campaign on Tuesday as Democratic presidential rivals vied for victory and the campaign momentum it would bestow.

"I vote my conscience. Unlike Howard Dean, I've fought in a war and I know the responsibilities of commander in chief, of how you send young men and women off to war," said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts in an unusual jab at his closest pursuer in the polls.

"I think what we need in Washington is somebody who's going to stand up and say what they think," Dean said in an appearance on the same NBC "Today" program. "It may not be popular and it may not always be politic, but I think a lot of people have given up on this country and we want to give them hope again."

Sens. John Edwards and Joe Lieberman and retired Gen. Wesley Clark also made their final appeals in a race that blended campaign oratory with hundreds of candidate pancake breakfasts, lunchtime diner stops and supper-hour chili feeds. All of it was spiced by an estimated $9 million worth of television advertising.

Secretary of State William Gardner estimated the primary would draw 184,000 voters, and the candidates greeted some of the early risers.

"I hope I've earned your vote," Kerry told voters at a school in Manchester.

At stake for the day were 22 national convention delegates _ as well as incalculable political momentum in the contest to pick a Democratic challenger for President Bush. On Wednesday, the calendar turns to seven states that hold primaries and caucuses on Feb. 3, with 269 delegates at stake.

The first New Hampshire 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.

"The preliminaries are over," Edwards told a theater full of supporters Monday night. "Tomorrow you pick a president."

Before winning the Iowa caucuses last week, the Kerry campaign had been "on the endangered species list," the Massachusetts senator acknowledged. This time, it was Dean who campaigned for a surprise finish.

"I'm not sure it's a dead heat, but it's close and it's closing very fast," said the former Vermont governor, struggling to steady a campaign off balance since the Iowa caucuses and a 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 on 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, helicoptered his way around the state on 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.

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