OTTUMWA, Iowa -- Democrat John Kerry is finding new political life in Iowa with a coalition of veterans, firefighters and undecided voters wondering about the viability of a Howard Dean or Dick Gephardt presidential nomination.
The combination could be enough to salvage the Massachusetts lawmaker's campaign, perhaps even shake up the Democratic race.
"We're on the move. People come up to me and say, 'You're the guy. You're the one who can beat Bush. We're nervous about Dean. We have doubts about his experience,'" Kerry said between campaign stops Monday.
The Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses are often cast as a two-person race between Dean, a former five-term governor of Vermont, and Gephardt, the Missouri lawmaker who won the 1988 caucuses before losing the Democratic nomination.
But the conventional wisdom ignores signs that Kerry is within striking distance of a second-place finish. That could revitalize his sagging campaign in New Hampshire while damaging the prospects of whoever gets edged out of the top tier here.
And the Massachusetts senator is not the only candidate with potential to surprise in Iowa. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has quietly built a strong organization while standing apart from the field by refusing to attack Dean.
"When you talk to the Kerry people, they're convinced they're on fire and they're not just blowing smoke," said Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist here who is not allied with any campaign. "This electorate is still fluid enough that Kerry could slip into second."
Voters are shopping
Kerry's hopes rest with voters like Gary Steeples, a 67-year-old retiree from Ottumwa who may wait until the last minute to back a candidate.
"I think President Bush is going to beat September 11 to death, and John Kerry has the background to hit back," Steeples said after hearing Kerry speak at a local diner.
Like many uncommitted voters, Steeples long ago ruled out Gephardt, a fixture of Iowa politics since his 1988 victory here, and has never understood the appeal of front-running Dean.
So he's shopping.
"Senator Edwards is my other possible choice because Democrats need somebody who can win in the South," Steeples said.
Bob Robinson, 79, a longtime Republican from New Sharon, Iowa, declared his allegiance to Kerry at a campaign stop later in the day. "He convinced me here on the spot," Robinson said.
Strategists in the top campaigns agreed that 10 percent to 25 percent of caucus-goers could still be up for grabs in two weeks. They'll wait to hear their neighbors' pitches and subject themselves to last-minute arm-twisting before deciding who to back.
That gives hope to a candidate like Kerry, who watched his lead evaporate in New Hampshire amid Dean's surge. In a last-ditch effort to save his campaign, Kerry fired his campaign manager and shifted resources to Iowa.
In a recent focus group conducted by one of Kerry's rivals, Iowa voters said the staff shake-up defined Kerry's campaign for them. Officials familiar with the focus group, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the voters suggested they were taking a fresh look at Kerry -- in part due to TV ads in which he promises to fight special interests.
Several of the focus group participants said they didn't know Kerry supported the Bush-backed Iraq war resolution, an issue that anti-war Dean has used against him.
Kerry, who was unaware of the focus groups, said the results nonetheless confirm what he's found on the campaign trail: An inclination by voters to give him a second look.
He said voters, particularly in New Hampshire, "stopped listening" months ago after they sided against his war vote. "Now, they're listening again" and can be won over, Kerry said.
Trouble is, Kerry has pulled resources out of New Hampshire and diverted them to Iowa, which could hurt his cause in the Granite State. Officials with two Democratic campaigns say their polling shows Wesley Clark tied or pulling ahead of Kerry there.
Clark is not competing in Iowa.
Public polls have shown Kerry in third place in Iowa, trailing both Dean and Gephardt by 5 to 10 percentage points.
Private polling conducted by Dean's campaign in December showed Kerry overtaking Gephardt and threatening Dean's lead, but the momentum evaporated. The former Vermont governor recently told associates that Kerry had him worried.
If he surged once, he could again.
Pollsters for three campaigns have independently found that Kerry has a devoted following among the 50,000 Democrats who voted in the 2000 caucuses. Kerry, once considered the front-runner, is still favored by many party elite.
He has secured endorsements from 26 state lawmakers, more than any rival.
The Vietnam War hero is aggresively courting 90,000 Iowa veterans who are Democrats or independents. He travels the state with firefighters, touting the backing from their union.
But even Kerry concedes that's not enough.
"I think endorsements are dubious," he said. And his advisers concede that Kerry's support is weak among potential first-time caucus-goers who could swell the ranks of the Jan. 19 contest to 100,000 or more.