The endorsement comes just 10 days before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses and could deal a powerful blow to U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt, who remains in a dead heat with Dean in Iowa polls.
In his endorsement, Harkin praised Dean’s straightforward approach to campaigning and called the former Vermont governor “the Harry Truman of our generation.”
The four-term senator has a sizeable organization in the state that could prove invaluable on caucus night. All the Democratic contestants appealed to Harkin for backing—and the senator had said in recent days that he was considering whether to choose sides. Although party officials cannot comment on the endorsement because they administer the caucuses, state leaders recently said that as many as 30 percent to 35 percent of Democrats remain undecided, but a television station poll in the last days shows that number at 13 percent.
“Tom Harkin is certainly a beloved figure in Iowa in Democratic politics, but we’ll find out January 19 whether that translates into victory,” said Mark Daley, director of communications for the Iowa Democratic Party.
Gephardt, who is not seeking re-election, won the Iowa Caucuses in 1988 and needs a good showing this year to remain in the race. He was first elected to the House from neighboring Missouri in 1976 and is considered a favorite son among many Iowa Democrats.
Harkin joins former Vice President Al Gore and former U.S. Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and the late Paul Simon (D-Ill.) in endorsing Dean, who also has received the backing of labor unions in the state.
A poll by KCCI-TV in Des Moines showed support in Iowa dividing: 29 percent for Dean; 25 percent Gephardt; 18 percent Kerry; 8 percent Edwards. Thirteen percent of respondents were undecided. The poll of 600 likely voters was conducted January 5-January 7 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.
According to the most recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, Dean also leads in New Hampshire with 24 percent of support, although Gen. Wesley Clark has narrowed the gap to 4 percentage points, which places him within the poll’s margin of error.
Harkin’s endorsement comes at a crucial time for Dean, who spent Friday struggling to overcome damage from comments made four years ago on Canadian television, in which he said the presidential caucus system was dominated by extremists. His comments were aired on NBC News Thursday night.
On the 1996 broadcast of “The Editors,” which covered U.S. and Canadian politics, Dean said: “If you look at the caucus system, they are dominated by the special interests, in both sides, in both parties. The special interests don’t represent the centrist tendencies of the American people. They represent the extremes.”
Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University known widely as an expert on politics in the state, said the latest Dean misstep has offended many Democrats in Iowa and is uncertain what the Harkin endorsement ultimately will mean.
“I’m not sure how many votes Harkin will deliver,” Schmidt said. “The people who go to caucuses are annoyingly individualistic.” He added, however, that losing the endorsement to Dean is damaging for Gephardt. “For Gephardt it’s very dispiriting. It’s a big deal for him because it’s a psychological blow.”
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