For Democrats, battle goes on

Kerry has solidified his lead, but still faces key Southern test next Tuesday.

John Kerry, fortified as the Democratic front-runner after his latest primary victories, is still fighting a multifront war - fending off primary challengers while taking aim at President Bush.

And because two of his opponents, Sen. John Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, each won a contest on Tuesday, that multipronged war will continue for at least a week or two. Much will depend on whether the Massachusetts senator's challengers can raise enough money to fund credible efforts in the next states and fight growing perceptions that Senator Kerry may be unstoppable.

For Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic national chairman who promoted a front-loaded primary schedule to allow early selection of a presidential nominee, the continuing primary battle may be a disappointment. Kerry isn't anointed yet, and could still stumble. While the Republican Party takes aim at him, the senator still must take fire from fellow Democrats.

But some Democrats see advantages in the still-lively internal battle. Public interest and press coverage will remain high, including all the arguments against Mr. Bush, says Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council. For the eventual nominee, continuing to make his case before voters in hard-fought contests helps him sharpen his skills and message, like political spring training.

"So far this has been a terrific race for the Democrats," says Mr. Reed, a former top adviser to President Clinton. He cites Gallup poll numbers showing Democrats' favorability rating going up from 47 percent at the beginning of January to 59 percent at the end, while Republican favorability dropped from 52 percent to 48 percent during the same period. So far, he says, the GOP potshots have been "mischief" that only "political junkies" are paying attention to.

One unknown lurking as the Democrats head into their next contests - Michigan and Washington state (Feb. 7), Maine (Feb. 8), and Virginia and Tennessee (Feb. 10), and Washington, DC (Feb. 14) - is whether any of Kerry's opponents will go for broke and unleash a torrent of negativity against the senator. The likeliest candidate for the "nuclear" strategy may be Howard Dean, who, having won no states so far after spending much of 2003 leading the polls, may feel he has nothing to lose. The former Vermont governor has thick files of opposition research on Kerry.

The Dean question remains a live one: If he continues to do poorly during the next round of primaries and caucuses - including Super Tuesday, March 2, when the majority of convention delegates will be selected - but refuses to quit, keeping his insurgency alive, will he be a thorn in the side of Kerry and the Democratic establishment?

There is precedent for this, such as in 1992, when Jerry Brown kept running against Bill Clinton long after the Arkansas governor had locked in the nomination. Governor Brown kept picking up delegates and therefore gained clout at the convention.

Still, Kerry reaped far more good than worrisome news this week. By winning in Missouri, Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Delaware - and winning the majority of the delegates - in Tuesday's contests, he has proved that he can win outside the Frost Belt and draw support among a variety of key Democratic constituencies, including African Americans. He also scored well among Latino voters, a fast-growing minority voting bloc.

But his achievement was tempered by Senator Edwards's win in South Carolina and General Clark's narrow victory in Oklahoma (with Edwards posting an unexpectedly strong second-place finish), allowing both men to remain in the race and try to position themselves as credible alternatives to Kerry. Tuesday's contests did have a winnowing effect, as Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who failed to win anywhere, ended his presidential bid late Tuesday night.

But while Kerry may not have gotten the "clean sweep" victory that would have all but ended the race, the continuing presence of so many rivals could ultimately work to his advantage, by preventing the emergence of a single opponent - such as Edwards - who could turn the race into a more competitive two-person battle.

"It was a good night, but not a perfect night, for Kerry," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. "He would have liked to have obliterated everyone else."

Exit polls showed Kerry was a top choice among voters who cared about experience, and among those concerned about a candidate's ability to beat Bush.

Still, some of Tuesday's results hint at a lingering fluidity. Kerry was not able to win in either of the Southern contests - a factor his rivals will likely cite as a weakness for a general-election candidate. In South Carolina, Edwards beat Kerry among voters who cared most about the economy, as well as winning handily among moderates and white voters.

The Oklahoma contest proved the most competitive, with Clark and Edwards winding up in a statistical tie, and Kerry not far behind. "The majority of the voters are split all over the place," says Bob Darcy, a political scientist at Oklahoma State University. There's no real consensus yet, and Oklahoma was no exception, he notes.

Certainly, next week's primaries in Tennessee and Virginia now become far more critical - offering both Edwards and Clark a chance to build on their wins, and presenting Kerry with another opportunity to show he can compete in the South. The Kerry campaign is reportedly buying advertising time in both states, possibly at the expense of some of the contests that come this weekend, in Michigan (where Kerry has a commanding lead in polls), Washington, and Maine.

Yet Kerry notes that he's the only candidate running a credible national campaign. And the Democratic establishment is showing increasing signs of closing ranks behind him - a factor that could tilt the balance more his way in days to come. Indeed, analysts say it may become increasingly difficult for any of Kerry's cash-strapped rivals to topple him in the kind of TV-and-tarmac campaign the race is heading into in the big states.

"It's hard to imagine that things aren't going to consolidate behind Kerry," says Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based pollster.

In many ways, the 2004 Democratic battle is beginning to echo elements of the nomination contest in 1988. That year, another well-funded Massachusetts favorite son, Michael Dukakis, won most of the early primaries and drew the broadest support among Democrats geographically. But the race was prolonged by rival Al Gore, who won a few Southern primaries, though ultimately wasn't able to take his campaign beyond the region. A wild card was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who stayed in the race accruing delegates all the way to the convention - a role that may be played by Dean this year.

But Kerry has certain advantages that Dukakis did not. He won in both Iowa and New Hampshire, a rare feat for a nonincumbent. (Dukakis won New Hampshire, but not Iowa.) The primary process is more front-loaded than ever before. And Kerry may also benefit from a Democratic Party that is strikingly unified in its desire to beat Bush - leading many voters to want to choose a nominee quickly, rather than prolonging the primary process.

Staff writer Josh Burek contributed to this report.

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