Catch me if you can. With John Kerry's double Southern victories Tuesday, both in the double digits, that's the challenge his remaining rivals face. And after finishing third in both Virginia and Tennessee, one rival - retired Gen. Wesley Clark - ended the chase. He's set to announce his withdrawal this morning in Little Rock, Ark.
For Senator Kerry, last night's wins prove he's viable in the South as well as the West and the Northeast, giving him the momentum of a steamroller. Just a month ago, Kerry was polling in the single digits in both Virginia and Tennessee. But on Tuesday, he won more votes than native Southern sons Sen. John Edwards and General Clark combined.
Senator Edwards won among voters whose top worry was the economy, while those upset about Iraq tended to pull the lever for General Clark. But exit polls showed that most voters believed Kerry has the best chance of winning come November - and, as elsewhere, that "electability quotient" was key.
"The curtain has just been brought down by the voters in Virginia and Tennessee," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "He's proven to be viable nationally, he's won convincing victories in every region. Not only does he not have a peer, he's six or seven grade levels above every other candidate. This really is the critical night."
For Clark, who placed an anemic third in both races, the pressure of Kerry's commanding wins reached a critical mass, overriding his campaign's earlier plan to stay in the race at least through next week. Now, with Clark bowing out, only Edwards and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean - who cut short his campaigns in Virginia and Tennessee - have pledged to stay in.
That could be either very good, or very bad, for the Democrats. It would be bad for the party, experts say, if Dr. Dean and Edwards start adding their own voracious attacks to GOP criticism of Kerry - damaging Kerry in voters' minds and forcing him to spend more money between now and Super Tuesday's pivotal races March 2.
But a multi-candidate race for the next month could have an upside for Democrats, too. So far, this has been the most genial primary race in recent memory. In part, that's the fallout from Iowa's mutually assured destruction between Dean and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt - an ill-fated spate of attacks that's kept both Edwards and Clark from assailing Kerry.
"The decibel level of the campaign is way down, you're not seeing personal attacks that usually mark primaries - 'Kerry is a Republican,' that kind of thing," says pollster John Zogby. And that, he continues, has allowed front-runner Kerry to rouse and energize the anti-Bush vote in "friendly competition.... This kind of quasi-competitive campaign allows Kerry and the Democrats to generate some enthusiasm."
But Professor Sabato notes that turnout was lower in Virginia and Tennessee than in earlier primary and caucus states, which could be a warning sign for the Democrats. "That tells me the voters are losing interest," he says.
Some Democratic activists worry that Kerry could become the presumptive nominee before he's been properly vetted by his party. To some extent, Clark's withdrawal will complicate the race for Kerry. With fewer rivals - and now, only one competitor from the South - the "friendly competition" may gain focus and edge. And with the political chessboard less crowded, say experts, Edwards may suddenly be more viable as the "Kerry alternative."
The next big contest is in Wisconsin on Feb. 17, and Kerry is far ahead in the polls. But Dean has staked his future on an upset win, and despite a series of third- and forth-place finishes, he's continued to raise more money online than front-runner Kerry - displaying an "unprecedented" fundraising ability, according to Tom Patterson of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Still, Professor Patterson doubts that Dean will pull off a win in Wisconsin and counter the Kerry juggernaut.
"It's unlikely, but Wisconsin has sprung a few surprises in the past - it gave Kennedy a win in 1980 in his campaign against Carter," says Patterson. "I think it's a kind of last best strategy of any candidacy."
Material from wire services was used in this report.