Southern Comfort For Kerry

Sen. John Kerry's (D-Mass.) decisive victories in Virginia and Tennessee Tuesday confirmed that he can compete in all parts of the country, and dealt a severe blow to the campaigns of Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Gen. Wesley Clark.

Kerry's wins "eliminate the one lingering question about his campaign, which is, can he win in the South," said Anthony Corrado, a government professor at Colby College and visiting scholar in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "We essentially have the completion of the nominating process."

In Virginia's first primary in 16 years, Kerry won handily with 52 percent of the vote, followed by Edwards with 27 percent. Clark, former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.), Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) all finished in the single digits.

With 72 percent of the vote in, Kerry won 41 percent in Tennessee, trailed by Edwards at 26 percent and Clark at 23 percent. The three other candidates were in the single digits.

Kerry's victories quieted concerns remaining after his losses in South Carolina and Oklahoma last week that he could not win south of the Mason- Dixon line. Having carried 12 of 14 states, his first-place showing Tuesday "further fuels his outpacing of the rest of the field," Corrado noted. Kerry has shown his confidence by switching his focus in speeches from his primary opponents to President Bush.

Edwards' runner-up position in both states allows him to continue his campaign and portray this as a two-man race. "We did what we needed to do tonight," Edwards told CNN. After stumping in Virginia Tuesday morning, Edwards headed to Wisconsin, which holds the next contest on Feb. 17.

But Edwards did not definitely rule out taking the vice-presidential slot on a Kerry ticket, saying only that he was focused on winning the nomination.

Clark, however, called it a day, pulling out of the campaign after his disappointing third place finish in both states. He will make an official announcement in Little Rock, Arkansas, on Wednesday.

Kerry's momentum -- he carried five states last week and picked up Michigan, Washington and Maine over the weekend -- no doubt boosted him Tuesday. He led in pre-primary polls even though he spent less time in the two states than Clark and Edwards.

Electability was again a key factor for voters in choosing a candidate. According to the National Election Pool, 3 in 10 voters said selecting a candidate who could defeat Bush was their top consideration. About 90 percent of Virginia voters believe Kerry could beat Bush in November, CNN reported.

"Americans are voting for change," Kerry said at a victory rally at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. "Together across the South, you have shown that the mainstream values that we share -- fairness, love of country, a belief in hope and in hard work -- are more important than boundaries or birthplace."

Unhappiness with Bush also motivated voters. Almost half -- 45 percent -- said they were "angry" at the White House; about the same number said they were "dissatisfied but not angry." As one voter in northern Virginia told The Washington Post, "If they had a goat to run in the Democratic Party I would vote for it."

The economy was also a big factor for voters, with about one in three people saying it was their chief concern. In Virginia, about 40 percent of voters said they worried about their families' jobs. Tennessee has lost approximately 72,000 jobs since Bush took office.

Kerry's seeming inevitability as the race's frontrunner also helped him. Even among voters who did not support him, almost 3 in 4 said they would be satisfied if he were the Democratic nominee. And Virginia exit polls showed that almost half of voters chose a candidate in the last week.

Several other factors benefited Kerry in Virginia. He was the only candidate running ads over the weekend in northern Virginia, the state's most populous area. (Clark pulled all of his Virginia ads to focus on Tennessee, while Edwards ran commercials in other parts of the state.) Gov. Mark Warner (D-Va.) endorsed Kerry over the weekend. And Kerry's emphasis on veterans played well in a state with a large military contingent. He also won convincingly in both urban and rural areas, and among white and African-American voters.

Clark's losses put pressure on him to drop out of the race. "It's basically a resource question," Corrado said. With a narrow victory in Oklahoma and losses Tuesday, Clark would have likely see fundraising dry up, he noted. The candidacy of the four-star general, seen early as the anti-Dean, never caught fire after Kerry won Iowa. Clark's campaign staff already had to forego a week's pay so he could advertise in Tennessee, where he spent Tuesday.

Dean, who abandoned Tennessee and Virginia to focus on Wisconsin, switched his previous position and said he will continue his campaign even if he loses there.

As Kerry savors his southern victories, his campaign knows the challenge ahead is to win the two states in November. The last time Virginia voted for a Democrat for president was in 1964. Tennessee went for Bush in 2000 rather than its native son, Al Gore, by 4 points. However, both states have elected Democratic governors since then, and Democratic party leaders are hopeful they can win the states this year.

For now, Kerry's victories will likely give him a bounce heading into Wisconsin, although polls already showed him with a wide lead. On Tuesday, he picked up the endorsement of Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.).

But even if Kerry loses next week, he heads into Super Tuesday on March 2 in a strong position. He has the most money to compete in 10 states as diverse and expensive as California, New York and Ohio. "Kerry is the only candidate campaigning everywhere," Corrado said.

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