As he heads into tuesday's crucial round of Democratic primaries, John Kerry is facing the first multistate test of his strength as the Democratic front-runner - and an opportunity to all but clinch his hold on the party's nomination.
If the Massachusetts senator can dominate - or sweep - all seven contests, scattered across a diverse mix of mostly Southern and Western states, he would quiet questions about the breadth of his appeal, and generate an influx of money and momentum that could make him difficult to stop.
But if his rivals can pull off enough individual victories to muddy the results, it could lead to a protracted slog that becomes more about delegate accumulation than early state trophies.
Already, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is trying to prolong the competition by essentially ceding the Feb. 3 states to his rivals and focusing instead on states that will vote next Saturday - Michigan and Washington - and beyond. Yet Dr. Dean's efforts in those states may prove too little too late unless Mr. Kerry's momentum is slowed first by another contender, such as Sen. John Edwards or retired Gen. Wesley Clark.
In many ways, Kerry has spent the past week running what looks more like a general election campaign than a primary battle - flying in for brief visits to all seven states - while his opponents have hunkered down in states where they feel they can best compete.
Though this has created a far greater challenge for Kerry, analysts say a strong showing would solidify his status as the front-runner, allowing him to claim an across-the-board appeal among different regions and constituencies.
"You have to be able to demonstrate some degree of broad support," says Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. South Carolina may be the biggest test, he adds, given its mix of African- Americans and moderate whites. Although polls show Senator Edwards, who has declared the state a must-win for his candidacy, holding a narrow lead, Kerry remains well within striking distance. "If [Kerry] wins here, it's all over," says Professor Guth.
Certainly, the race so far has demonstrated the power of momentum. Although Kerry had spent significantly less time and money in the Feb. 3 states than his top rivals - and had virtually no campaign organization in many of them before this week - he is now the man to beat, with his surprise wins in Iowa and New Hampshire catapulting him to the top of the polls in nearly every state.
In the day's biggest contests, polls show Kerry holds commanding leads in Missouri and Arizona, while he has closed the gap with Edwards and Clark in South Carolina and Oklahoma, respectively.
Increasingly, Kerry's rivals are finding it difficult to map out a convincing path to victory. If Edwards and Clark were to win in one or more states tuesday, both would then look ahead to Virginia and Tennessee, which vote Feb. 10. But they would also face growing pressure to come up with victories outside the South, to avoid being seen as regional candidates.
Similarly, in the Feb. 7 contests in Michigan and Washington, where Dean is hoping for a strong showing, Kerry is likely to prove a formidable contender. He recently won the endorsement of Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
The value in a Feb. 3 victory for any of Kerry's rivals may be simply to buy time - and hope that if Kerry is drawn into a longer battle, he may either stumble or be wounded by attacks.
After allowing Kerry to coast through the New Hampshire primary virtually unscathed, his opponents have now unleashed a barrage of criticism, on everything from Kerry's ties to lobbyists to his past statements on affirmative action.
Regardless of what happens on Feb. 3, Kerry may have to contend with Dean for a while, with the former Vermont governor indicating he plans to fight on at least through the March 2 Super Tuesday. Dean's campaign argues that voters in later primary states - particularly large states such as California, New York, and Florida - should resist a Kerry "coronation" before they've had a chance to weigh in on the selection process.
Even after the Wisconsin primary on Feb. 17, only a quarter of the total delegates needed to secure the nomination will have been chosen.
Dean has a loyal enough base of support - and, despite blowing through $40 million in the run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire, enough money coming in over the Internet - to continue, advisers say. "I think we have a candidate and a campaign uniquely able to last this out," says Paul Maslin, Dean's pollster.
Still, without posting a win soon, Dean, like all of Kerry's rivals, may find it increasingly difficult to stay in the race, especially if pressure grows from party elders to get out. Some voters, too, don't want the process to go on too long, at least in those states where they're getting a chance to vote.
Attending a Kerry rally in Kansas City, Sharman and William Robertson say they're for "whichever Democrat's left standing," though they're still deciding between Kerry and Edwards.
Dan Klinger, a weather technician at Kansas City International airport, was a Dean supporter until recently - and blames the media for "orchestrating" his downfall. But he's also content to switch his support to Kerry, saying he doesn't see that big a difference between the Democratic candidates, and just wants a nominee to emerge. "We want to get the nomination decided early in order to better take on Bush in the general election," he says.