John Kerry's win in five of seven state primary contests on Tuesday provides added momentum for the Massachusetts senator to become the Democratic nominee for the presidential contest. But his two losses and slim victories in the other states hint that the party hasn't yet fully embraced Mr. Kerry.
And the fact that his two losses were in the critical South suggests he'll need to do more if he's to beat a sitting Republican president. That's why speculation is rife that Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who took the South Carolina primary, could soon be enticed to withdraw and be the favorite to become the vice-presidential nominee, creating a regionally balanced ticket.
Among Kerry's victories (Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, and North Dakota), it was in Arizona that he showed he has strength among minorities: He garnered nearly half the Hispanic vote in that state. In Missouri, a state reflecting the nation at large, he showed solid support from all groups, rich and poor, blacks and whites, and especially, the elderly.
Democratic voters in the remaining primary states haven't had a good look at Kerry yet. His main reputation is that he's "electable" against Mr. Bush for having won Iowa and New Hampshire.
His record as senator and heroic Vietnam veteran wasn't enough for him to take South Carolina, where Edwards won with 45 percent to Kerry's 30 percent, or in Oklahoma where he lost to former general Wesley Clark.
Still, Kerry's sudden appeal as the best Bush-beater could still prove hardy from here on. He's taken that mantle of electability away from party outsider Howard Dean, who has not won a single primary despite an earlier dominance in the polls. Now Kerry must convince the youthful and energetic "Deaniacs" not only that he can beat Bush but that he reflects their progressive views. The fact that Kerry's campaign style has become less scripted and patrician shows he needs to broaden his appeal beyond just his record in Vietnam or looking presidential. Democrats want the real Kerry of today.
Despite their poor showings, Howard Dean and Wesley Clark vow to stay in the race. That will give Democrats more choices, and keep a useful bright light on Kerry.
This primary season was purposefully shortened by party leaders. Unfortunately, more debate and campaigning would be useful, even with a winnowed pack, at least through March 2 (Super Tuesday).
Democrats would be better served by more rigorous exchanges on issues like the economy and healthcare - and the wars in Iraq and on terror - rather than negative exchanges between candidates, which only foster cynicism and discontent.