The Note

Gephardt "has improved his position in the last six months, party analysts say. He continues to lead the polls in Iowa, which conducts its caucuses Jan. 19. His ties to organized labor should make him a strong contender in the potentially critical February primaries in Michigan and Wisconsin. And his call for repealing Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts to finance a plan for universal health care has provided his candidacy a forward-looking rationale."

But, Brownstein points out, Gephardt's candidacy is still beset by electability questions and money issues.

And Dean has been the one contender to seem to touch a genuine chord with voters.

"Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, said the enthusiasm the candidate has inspired virtually ensures he will survive to the race's final stages, running as 'the outsider' against a sole remaining rival — most likely Kerry or Gephardt — who emerges as party establishment's choice. Many neutral observers agree with that assessment."

"In such a scenario, Dean would face difficult decisions on how to reach out to centrists to expand his support without alienating the activist base that has rocketed him into contention."

"Edwards is the enigma in the race."

"He was the first quarter's top fund-raiser — garnering more than $7 million — and, depending on his second-quarter report, he may still rank first in total donations for the year. He also connects well with audiences on the campaign trail, honing a message in which he promises to confront Bush on behalf of the sort of working-families that he grew up among in North Carolina."

"But polls show that like a boat on a reef, he remains stuck, with minimal support in Iowa and New Hampshire. Poor showings in those states could quickly sink his prospects."

The Washington Post 's Dan Balz further magnifies the road ahead for the Dean campaign — and what it means to go from being "lightly regarded" as a "curiosity" to announcing his presence with authority and to making the turn from that first fascination into a long-term relationship with (an expanded pool of) voters. LINK "'He either has to rise up to the next level, or there will be an implosion,' said Anita Dunn, a top adviser to former senator Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign told Balz. 'But I think there is potential for him to rise up to the next level, because he clearly has more talent than a lot of us gave him credit for.'"

But can that potential translate to long-lasting steam?

Gore 2000 adviser Ron Klain doubts it. Bill Bradley was on a fundraising streak — outperforming Gore — in the second quarter of 1999, and never claimed victory in any primary or caucus in 2000, Klain sagely points out to Balz.

Now Dean has to contend with not only turning supporters into nominating voters, but the perception in that pesky political press and elsewhere that he might be peaking too soon.

And does Dean threaten Kerry or Gephardt more? Both camps are playing hot potato with that one.

Gephardt adviser Steve Elmendorf predicts Dean spells trouble for Kerry in both Iowa and New Hampshire. "There's a greater likelihood of that happening now than there was two weeks ago," he said.

But Kerry campaign manager Jim Jordan figures Gephardt will be the one bumped off the island: "The race is turning into essentially a Kerry-Dean race."

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