John Kerry criticized Howard Dean on Sunday for espousing tax and foreign policies that will "just kill us" at the polls in November as Kerry himself was accused of waffling on the Iraq war.
Leading comfortably in polls two days from voting, the Massachusetts lawmaker asked Dean to "stop running a negative campaign," even as he suggested that Dean can't get elected. "Between foreign policy and taxes, I think it is a serious problem," Kerry said.
A spokeswoman for Dean, the former Vermont governor, replied that he has stood up to President Bush on taxes, education and the war in Iraq. "Unfortunately, to this day, John Kerry couldn't find his position on Iraq with a compass," Tricia Enright said.
Sen. John Edwards, who finished second to Kerry in last week's Iowa caucuses and has promised to wage a positive campaign, said the Massachusetts senator has not been clear on the war. "I think he's said some different things at different points in time," Edwards said as the candidates made the rounds of TV news shows. "So I think there's been some inconsistency."
No wonder Kerry flinched when somebody called him the front-runner. "I hate that word," he said.
As temperatures hovered near zero, the race heated up in a state known for promoting underdogs and surprises. The New Hampshire primary is Tuesday.
Polls showed 8 percent to 15 percent of voters were still undecided, and many more willing to reconsider their early picks. Like Sunday shoppers cruising store aisles, wavering voters drove from town to town Sunday, checking out the candidates.
"A lot of my friends are all out today to see as many candidates as possible," said Susan Porter, a 57-year-old teacher who joined at least 1,000 others at an Edwards speech. The parking lot was filled with cars adorned with Kerry, Dean and Edwards bumper stickers.
On TV and elsewhere, it was a day for carping and criticism.
Dean said the Iraqi standard of living is "a whole lot worse" since U.S. troops ousted Saddam Hussein. Wesley Clark refused to dissociate himself from a celebrity supporter's claim that President Bush was a deserter. And Sen. Joe Lieberman accused Dean of an "irresponsible statement," linking pro-war lawmakers like himself to the deaths of more than 500 U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
While not always reliable in New Hampshire, polls suggest Kerry led by 12 to 25 points, with Dean finally stopping his post-Iowa freefall. Edwards and Clark are within striking distance of Dean. Lieberman trails, but has gained some ground.
"This is Joementum here in New Hampshire!" the Connecticut senator said.
Still trying recover from last week's disastrous third-place caucus finish, Dean said, "We can win this," and later added: "New Hampshire loves to reverse Iowa's judgment."
A victory would propel Kerry to the Feb. 3 states with momentum and money. Dean needs a surprise win or close second to regain his footing after Iowa. The rest of the field hopes to exceed their modest expectations, then score their first victories Feb. 3.
Their exact route after New Hampshire won't be determined until Tuesday's results reshape the field, but aides said Dean was strongest in Arizona and New Mexico; Edwards aimed at South Carolina, Missouri and North Dakota; Clark at South Carolina; and Lieberman at Delaware, South Carolina, Arizona and Oklahoma.
A poor showing here might force Dean to jettison his Feb. 3 strategy and focus dwindling resources elsewhere, waiting for contests in Washington, Michigan and Maine to make his stand.
Dean campaigned with his wife, Judy Dean, on Sunday as part of a weeklong effort to soften his image. Some advisers clung to hopes that the surveys were underestimating Dean's success at reassuring voters.
Others privately acknowledged that his Iowa-night performance — they call it the "I-have-a-scream" speech — had damaged his candidacy, perhaps irreparably.
One top Dean strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said weekend polls appeared to have sealed Dean's fate by showing little or no growth after efforts to revamp his image at midweek.
His objections aside, Kerry sounded like a front-runner. "I'm going to be campaigning vigorously in all of those states," he said.
Kerry, who had remained above the fray since leaving Iowa, accused Dean of "flip-flops" on major issues and said his own strength is "the consistency of my positions." At one stop, he told David and Diana Frothingham that Dean is weak on foreign policy issues, and favors bolstering taxes on middle-class voters.
"The Republicans will just kill us on this," Kerry said.
Even as he warned that Dean would be a GOP target, Kerry defended himself against Republican accusations that he has a liberal voting record in the Senate. "That dog won't hunt," he told about 2,000 people who came to hear him and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.