DES MOINES — Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin endorsed Howard Dean Friday, a major boost in Dean's quest to win the pivotal Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 and timely distraction from the release of controversial remarks the candidate made on Canadian television several years ago.
Harkin's endorsement came as a blow to Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, who had sought to identify himself with the popular senator as he stumped through Iowa. While Gephardt's campaign had been getting hints in recent weeks that Harkin was leaning toward Dean, they had hoped he would ultimately stay out of the race and deny their rival another burst of momentum.
During a rally at Dean's Des Moines headquarters, Harkin said he carefully deliberated his decision, noting the strong field of Democrats running for president.
"For me, one candidate rose to the top as our best shot to beat George W. Bush, and to give Americans the opportunity to take our country back -- and that person is Gov. Howard Dean," the Iowa senator nearly shouted at a raucous crowd as he patted a Dean for America sticker onto his lapel.
Dean, campaigning in New Hampshire, pronounced himself grateful and called the endorsement "very helpful."
Not to mention well-timed.
Harkin's move came on the same day Dean's campaign started to bobble under a barrage of new questions about his outspoken remarks in 2000 on a series of issues -- ranging from the Iowa caucuses to Al Gore, to Hamas and the Palestinian leadership -- as well as indications that Wesley K. Clark's popularity is surging in New Hampshire.
On Thursday, NBC broadcast an appearance Dean made four years ago on a Canadian public-interest television show in which he dismissed the Iowa caucuses as a process dominated by special interests. Dean didn't deny the statement but sought to downplay it by saying that as a presidential candidate, he has a much more positive impression of the Iowa caucus system.
Still, the flaps seem to be taking their toll on the former Vermont governor, and he seemed relieved to have Harkin steal some of the spotlight.
"I'm a little tired of the gotcha politics of this campaign," Dean said on CNN's "Inside Politics." "We've got to stop this gotcha stuff. We've got to get beyond this."
The Democratic frontrunner has won a raft of major political endorsements, including that of former Vice President Al Gore, but it is unclear how they will affect the upcoming contests. A new Los Angeles Times poll of 640 likely Democratic caucus- goers in Iowa found that just 14% said Gore's endorsement last month made them more likely to support Dean. Seven percent said Gore's backing made them less likely to vote for Dean, while 79% said it made no difference.
"Iowans are fiercely independent," Gephardt told reporters as he campaigned in Tama, Iowa, on Friday. "While all of us would have liked to have gotten Tom Harkin's endorsement -- there's no question about that -- I really don't think anyone can tell Iowans whom they're going to pick to be the nominee."
Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, in Davenport, sought to avoid the topic of Harkin altogether by focusing on his endorsement Friday from the Iowa Atty. Gen. Tom Miller.
Harkin's spokeswoman, Allison Dobson, said the senator reached his decision Thursday night and called Dean from Des Moines about 8 p.m. CST. She said news reports that evening about the disparaging remarks Dean had made about the Iowa caucuses played no role in Harkin's decision or its timing.
"It caused no concern," Dobson said.
Earlier in the day, Dean appeared drawn and exhausted during a stop in Rochester, N.H., where the temperature hovered around zero. Inside a community center, he repeatedly stumbled over standard lines in his stump speech, garnering a subdued response from the audience of a few hundred.
Reporters eager to quiz Dean about his four-year-old remarks about the Iowa caucuses were told he would not be available, prompting more than 20 to descend upon the candidate as he left the event. With cameras jostling and reporters tripping to keep up as he walked, Dean said that he never believed that the caucuses were flawed, attributing his comments to the ignorance of someone unfamiliar with the system.
"I was talking four years ago," he said. "If I had known then what I know now about Iowa caucuses.... Iowa has been very good to me, and I couldn't run for president if I weren't, if I didn't have Iowa."
The mood was decidedly different by 1 p.m., when word of Harkin's endorsement leaked out.
More than 700 Dean supporters packed a Portsmouth theater, where a large screen onstage lifted to reveal two dozen children, seniors and union members standing before a massive American flag, holding Dean signs and chanting "How-ard Dean!" The candidate slipped to the front of the stage, where he delivered a rousing version of his speech before a foot-stomping, whistling audience.
As he finished, a band struck up a jazzy rendition of "Ain't No Stopping Us Now."