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Democrats: What -- and who -- is next?

Candidates in crowded field fight for political lives

By Greg Botelho

Howard Dean told fellow candidates Tuesday:
Howard Dean told fellow candidates Tuesday: "If you guys are upset that Al Gore is endorsing me, attack me, don't attack Al Gore."

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DURHAM, New Hampshire (CNN) -- It is about that time.

All nine Democratic presidential contenders voiced optimism from New Hampshire this week, outwardly confident they will rule the Boston convention floor in neighboring Massachusetts come July.

But the political calendar tells a different story.

That reality check became clearer -- and the checkout time more imminent for some candidates, said pundits -- after Al Gore, the party's nominee in the disputed 2000 election, endorsed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's candidacy Tuesday.

Who will survive this political bombshell -- not to mention the historical winter winnowing of crowded presidential fields after the January 19 Iowa caucuses and the January 27 New Hampshire primary?

In Tuesday's debate on the University of New Hampshire campus, co-host and "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel asked the Rev. Al Sharpton, Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun how long they would remain in the race given their widely reported monetary woes and generally low standings in the polls. (Full story)

Their varied responses -- and those of others chasing Dean -- during and after the debate revealed much about the candidates' personalities and political strategies.

After joking that "I can't say I really counted on" Gore's endorsement during the debate, Kucinich remained true to his idealistic self afterward in boldly predicting a striking, swift uptick in his numbers.

As his campaign touted several supportive hoots he received from the audience, the liberal congressman from Ohio said he felt he had made a connection in the debate that will carry over in the coming weeks.

"Look at tonight, and it's clear I stand alone" on many key issues, Kucinich said in the post-debate "spin room."

"Voters are ready right now for my message. They just needed someone who can make a clear stand."

Sharpton characteristically mixed humor and emotional rhetoric when pressed about the fate of his candidacy.

Referring to his money troubles, the New York minister and civil rights advocate said, "I think the fact I'm doing so well in some states polls shows that I know better how to deal with deficits than anyone else on this [debate] stage."

But just as Kucinich did, Sharpton also lashed out at the media and political system that he said stresses fund-raising totals and endorsements over substance.

He leveled some of his harshest language at Gore, in particular his assertion that Democrats would be better served if some candidates dropped out.

"No Democrat should shut up," Sharpton said. "The idea that people should not run is 'boss-ism.' ... I know that Governor Dean and Al Gore love the Internet -- www.bossism doesn't work on my computer."

Of all the candidates, Moseley Braun was most upfront after the debate about her own stiff challenges.

The former Illinois senator and ambassador to New Zealand admitted difficulties raising money and "getting a word in edgewise" in the crowded field.

But she said she planned to remain in the race and highlight the issues facing women and African-Americans as "an attempt to elevate other voices in the [Democratic] Party."

"You can't accept change by embracing the status quo," she said.

While these three campaigns may have to face reality sooner than the others, some analysts say the window of opportunity is rapidly closing for the entire field.

Ken Robinson, the New Hampshire director for Sen. John Kerry's campaign, said "the majority of voters will make up their minds in January."

Meantime, Robinson said, the Massachusetts senator "will continue to campaign like an underdog" -- as will probably everyone else except Dean.

As Americans increasingly tune into the presidential race -- recent polls, cited in the debate, put the proportion of undecided Democratic voters at more than 50 percent -- the candidates are looking for a key moment or move that will ignite their campaigns.

Sen. Joe Lieberman indicated Tuesday that his campaign may have received such a spark in one of its most ignominious moments -- when Gore, less than four years after choosing the Connecticut senator as his running mate on the Democratic ticket, publicly backed Dean.

"My chances have actually increased," he said, minutes after Kerry praised Lieberman's integrity and slammed Gore for not calling the Connecticut senator before making the announcement. "Our phones have been ringing off the hook."

"I have been raised to face adversity and today, I [will only] double my determination," Lieberman said.

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