As Sen. John Kerry barrels toward the Democratic nomination, his opponents are facing what could very well be their last and best chance to slow him down - and to stay in the race.
Tuesday's primaries in Virginia and Tennessee represent a key opportunity for Senator Kerry to show that he can win contests in every region of the country, including the South - the one area that has eluded him so far. They will also test the strength of his momentum against opponents who hail from neighboring states and who have, until just a few days ago, outspent him significantly here.
Kerry's dominance - over the weekend he added delegate-heavy Michigan and Washington to his list of wins - has come unusually early for a multicandidate race, and it represents a sudden shift in a contest that just weeks ago seemed up for grabs. Yet if Sen. John Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley Clark are unable to post victories in Virginia and Tennessee, they will find it difficult to continue much longer. Likewise, while former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has made next week's primary in Wisconsin a last stand, he may already have been fatally weakened by the loss in Washington, where he once had a strong network. The withdrawal of support from one of his top union backers has hurt him, too.
In many ways, Kerry has been helped - and his opponents hurt - by the presence of so many competitors in the race. Kerry's wins have garnered him the lion's share of airtime and money, leaving his opponents to battle for what remains of both. Every Kerry rival believes he could give the Massachusetts senator a tough fight, if only they could engage him one-on-one. "Our goal is to come out as the Kerry alternative," says an Edwards aide, of next Tuesday's contests.
There's even some evidence that it may not be in Kerry's best interest to see his opponents to drop out too soon. Although many Democrats have worried that a long primary battle would weaken the eventual nominee, over the past month the party's approval ratings have shot up significantly, as President Bush's have fallen. And while front-runners often come under harsh attack, Kerry has clearly benefited from a relatively friendly contest: At least two recent polls show him beating Mr. Bush in a head-to-head matchup.
"It's possible that Democrats will say to themselves, and to others, 'We want this contest to go on for a while,' " says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Victories in Virginia or Tennessee would help Kerry further present himself as the candidate with the broadest appeal, given the moderate leanings of many Southerners. With the Bush campaign already working to portray him as a Massachusetts liberal - and hinting they may run in part on cultural issues such as gay marriage - Tuesday's contests, coming in more socially conservative states, will offer a test of Kerry's strengths and weaknesses on that front.
Noticeably, Kerry's stump speech here is peppered with the word "values." He tells a crowd at the Richmond Marriott ballroom: "We don't have a broken budget in Washington, D.C., we have a broken values system" and "When children are children, adults are supposed to transfer real values to them."
WHILE success in a primary says little about how a state will vote in the general election - indeed, most experts agree that Virginia and Tennessee are almost certain to vote Republican in November - wins in one or both states might quiet questions about whether Kerry would bother to compete in any Southern states in the fall.
Although Kerry's recent remark that Democrats did not need to win in the South to take back the White House was technically accurate - Al Gore would have done it if he had carried New Hampshire - it raised concern among some party members, since no Democrat has won the White House without carrying at least some Southern states.
Polls show Kerry ahead in both Virginia and Tennessee. He has also been gaining institutional support, recently securing the endorsement of Virginia Gov. Mark Warner. General Clark has largely pulled out of Virginia, focusing mainly on Tennessee.
In Virginia, Kerry is likely to be propped up in particular by the Washington, D.C., suburbs in the north. Edwards, by contrast, is focusing much of his efforts on the southern, more rural parts of the state, where a number of textile mills have closed.
As in South Carolina, Edwards is stressing trade as one of the few issues where he can draw a distinction with Kerry. The Massachusetts senator voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement. But because Edwards is also trying to run a positive campaign, he doesn't make the contrast explicit.
"I hear President Bush talking about security for Americans," he says at the Hyperlink Café in Richmond. "How about security for American jobs?"
Many Virginia voters are conscious of their probable impact in winnowing the field - and at least some seem to want to prolong the race. At the Kerry rally at the Richmond Marriott, Mary Jo Browning says she thinks it's "healthy" for the party to have a spirited competition, as long as the fight doesn't turn negative. A resident of Culpeper, Va., she's torn between Kerry and Edwards, but is leaning toward the North Carolina senator. She says Kerry has "experience," but Edwards "connects with people."
Yet James Plunky Branch, a jazz musician from Richmond who's backing Kerry, says he'd rather "have it decided early, and focus all the attention where it needs to be - on Bush and his weaknesses."