Kerry Wins Battles Not War

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination is now essentially a contest between Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and two southern alternatives after Tuesday's seven-state primary.

Kerry was the big winner on Feb. 3, sweeping the Arizona, Delaware and Missouri primaries, as well as the North Dakota caucus. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) strengthened his prospects with a double-digit win in South Carolina, where he was born and which he had dubbed a "must win" contest. With 99 percent of the precincts reporting in Oklahoma, there is still no certified winner. Gen. Wesley Clark seems to have narrowly edged out Edwards, who was tied with him for 30 percent of the vote. While the breakdown is not yet available in New Mexico, CNN is picking Kerry as the winner there at press time.

Kerry’s string of victories served to once again reconfirm his frontrunner status. "It’s not a certainty, but it’s still a strong probability that Kerry will win" the nomination, said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

Edwards victory is a much-needed boost to keep his campaign alive, as is Clark's narrow win. They both won their "must win" states, but will still have to win outside their political comfort zone to show they have broader appeal. Besides South Carolina, Edwards finished second in Missouri, while Clark was the runner-up in Arizona and North Dakota.

A poor showing Tuesday ended Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (D-Conn.) presidential hopes, eliminating the race’s least liberal candidate. Lieberman had spent much of the past week in Delaware, hoping a win in at least one state would move his campaign forward. Instead, he finished a very distant second to Kerry there. Lieberman called his choice to drop out a "difficult but realistic decision."

The Rev. Al Sharpton won about 10 percent of the vote in South Carolina, where almost half of all voters are African American. But Sharpton finished third among black voters, behind Edwards and Kerry. Edwards is now pitching his victory as evidence of his ability to bring African American and white rural voters together to create a winning coalition.

It was a demoralizing night for former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.), who trailed significantly in every state but New Mexico. Dean had already ceded the Feb. 3 states by not running advertising, and told CNN's Larry King, "We didn’t expect any wins, so we can’t be disappointed." He plans to focus instead on later contests in Washington on Saturday and Wisconsin on Feb. 17.

Dean shook up his campaign last week by replacing his top adviser, but it is unclear whether the move is too little, too late to save his White House bid. Still, Dean -- who admitted this weekend that his campaign had taken "a gamble" in Iowa and New Hampshire that didn’t pay off -- shrugged off suggestions in recent days that he should quit the race if he was winless Tuesday.

"To suggest that anyone ought to step out of the race after 10 percent of the delegates are selected is ridiculous," he said. In a speech to his supporters, he vowed to keep "going, and going, and going, like the Energizer bunny."

Kerry is expected to do well in the Saturday races in Michigan and Washington, as well as in Maine on Sunday. But contests in Virginia and Tennessee on Feb. 10 could offer Edwards a chance to repeat his southern victories, which explains why he headed straight to Memphis Tuesday night.

In the first nationwide test of candidates' appeal, electability remained a top priority for voters. A recent USA Today/CNN/ Gallup Poll showed Kerry defeating President Bush by 53 to 46 percent, and Edwards winning with 49 percent to 48 percent for the president. Bush, however, beat other Democratic candidates in the poll. The survey also pointed to Bush’s vulnerability come November. His job-approval rating stands at 49 percent, with a 48 percent disapproval rating.

But in Oklahoma, the closest of the Tuesday contests, exit polls showed that voters considered different factors in deciding which candidate to support. Kerry won the most votes from those who cited electabillity as their top concern, while Clark was the top choice among voters who wanted a candidate who stands up for what he believes in. Those who wanted a candidate with a positive message chose Edwards.

The economy and health care were also among voters’ top concerns, according to exit polls. The message of economic justice helped Kerry, who has pledged to work in his first 500 days in office to restore the 3 million jobs lost under Bush. It also increased the appeal of Edwards, who has repeatedly spoken about the need to reduce poverty and unite the "two Americas" divided by income.

But just as with the earlier races, the candidates increasingly criticized one another as the primaries and caucuses neared. In South Carolina, which has suffered heavy job losses, Edwards attacked Kerry for supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement. He also joined Dean in lashing out at Kerry for accepting money from special interests. And he took a jab at Kerry Tuesday, saying that he understands the problems of working families because he comes from one.

Kerry was quick to point to a recent poll that shows Bush beating Edwards in North Carolina, describing him as a candidate who "can’t win his own state." He also said that Edwards was not ready to lead the country at a time when national security issues are high on the agenda.

Thanks to his resounding victory in South Carolina and second place in Missouri, the race is already being set up by media pundits as a two-man race between Edwards and Kerry. And that may explain why Kerry was questioning his rival's ability to win nationwide in his post-victory interviews. He told the Associated Press, "I compliment John Edwards, but I think you have to run a national campaign, and I think that's what we've shown tonight. You can't cherry-pick the presidency."

While Kerry had hoped to sweep all seven states, he painted Tuesday’s results as a strong victory. He told CNN his wins reflected a "significant desire across the country for new leadership." Kerry’s momentum coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire gave him a lead in most polls, and he is still considered the candidate to beat. Indeed, because of the split between Edwards and Clark, Kerry's victory resembles that of Michael Dukakis in 1988. Dukakis did well broadly, and was helped by the fact that Al Gore and Jesse Jackson split support in some Southern states, Schier noted.

But Missouri, with 74 of the 269 delegates awarded Tuesday, may have been the best arbiter of candidates' strengths because none of the contenders focused heavily on the state until two weeks ago, when Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt dropped out of the race. Edwards and Kerry poured money into Missouri to buy television ads, and Kerry headed there after winning New Hampshire. Kerry also enjoyed the support of some popular state figures, including former Sens. Jean Carnahan and Thomas Eagleton. Dean did not stand much of a chance there because of his negative attacks against Gephardt, who did not endorse any of his former opponents. The state is key to general election prospects because, except for 1956, every winning presidential candidate has won the state for the last 100 years.

With the presidential field winnowed to six after just nine contests in two weeks, Schier said it's important for the candidates, especially Edwards and Clark, to target states carefully and to win those states. As of Tuesday, he added, it looked as though Edwards and Clark "may delay a victory for Kerry, but not derail it."

Mary Lynn Jones is the online editor of The Hill.

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