The Democratic race may not be over yet. Sen. John Kerry racked up his 15th primary victory in Wisconsin on Tuesday - but his narrower-than-expected margin over a late-surging Sen. John Edwards adds a hint of uncertainty to a race that has for weeks looked all but over.
As in previous contests, Senator Kerry was the heavy favorite among Democrats and voters whose top priority was beating President Bush. But independents and voters worried about the economy propelled Senator Edwards to a surprisingly strong second-place showing. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean finished a distant third.
The results are likely to shift the dynamics of the race, with Kerry and Edwards now entering into essentially a two-man contest, heading into the 10 states that are set to vote on March 2. The outcome of those Super Tuesday primaries could prove decisive for the Massachusetts senator - or could recast the race altogether.
To be sure, Kerry remains the prohibitive front-runner. He has won 15 of 17 primaries so far, and is far ahead in delegate count. The Democratic establishment has been closing ranks behind him, and he is expected to get the endorsement of the AFL-CIO this week.
He will also have a growing advantage over Edwards as the race gets more expensive: The states that vote March 2, such as California and New York, tend to be large and are pricey media markets.
Still, in a cycle where Democrats seem to be searching above all for "electability" - or a candidate's perceived ability to beat President Bush - any new indications of vulnerability on Kerry's part could have an outsized effect.
"It means it keeps going," says Sam Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego. "If Edwards continues to pull up, that says Kerry has real weaknesses."
Kerry's aides argue that he is the only candidate who has been running a national campaign - and that he alone will compete in all 10 Super Tuesday states. While Edwards may now become the sole "Kerry alternative," he will likely still have to run a more targeted campaign, focusing over the next two weeks on specific states such as New York, Ohio, and Georgia.
Some Democrats believe a little jolt of competition could actually be good for Kerry. For one thing, it keeps media attention on the Democratic contest - and guarantees Kerry will get more coverage of his victories.
So far, Edwards hasn't really been attacking Kerry, and although the North Carolina senator says he will start to draw more pointed contrasts, he still insists he will run a positive campaign. A mostly friendly, though spirited, competition could help keep Kerry sharp and focused, and better prepare him for what all agree will be a tough general election battle.
But a longer campaign will be expensive, forcing Kerry and his rivals to spend money that could ultimately be used against Bush. It could also expose more weaknesses in Kerry as a candidate. Already, the close finish in Wisconsin raises questions of whether he was damaged by recent Republican attacks - accusing him of appearing with Jane Fonda at a Vietnam protest rally years ago, for example. He may also have suffered from an unsubstantiated, but much-circulated, Internet rumor of an affair (which Kerry and the woman in question both forcefully denied).
And while Kerry's strongest selling point so far has been his electability, the Wisconsin results may give Edwards the ability to lay claim to some of that mantle - given his greater appeal to independents and Republicans. Indeed, while Kerry's popularity among the Democratic base is unchallenged, Edwards may be the stronger candidate when it comes to swing voters, both geographically and ideologically.
The Wisconsin results clearly highlighted concerns about jobs, in a state that has lost more than 70,000 manufacturing positions in the past three years. In the final days of the race, Edwards hammered on his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, drawing an implicit contrast with Kerry, who voted for the trade agreement. Edwards will likely take the same message to Ohio - a Super Tuesday state that has also suffered significant manufacturing job losses, and that will likely prove pivotal in the general election, along with other Midwestern "Rust Belt" states.
Yet Edwards faces a huge task in trying to stop Kerry - a task that will require more money and, ultimately, the ability to do more than come in second. Still, his own summation of Tuesday's results may have been the most telling - or at least entertaining - encapsulation of the race so far. "Today the voters of Wisconsin sent a clear message," he said: "Objects in your mirror may be closer than they appear."