After more than a year of intense campaigning, and some of the sharpest swings of momentum in political history, the Democratic primary race is nearing a possible conclusion - and in many ways winding up exactly where it began.
If Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts wins all or most of the 10 states voting on Super Tuesday, as polls now predict, he will almost certainly become the Democratic nominee. His main challenger, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, could extend the race by winning one or more states Tuesday. But his chances of actually surpassing Kerry look increasingly remote.
The full-circle evolution - with Mr. Kerry going from original front-runner to near-dead candidate to likely nominee - caps a Democratic battle that has been unusual for both its volatility and its lack of intra-party acrimony. With as many as 10 candidates participating in dozens of televised forums and debates, the race has produced a strikingly unified Democratic electorate that is intently focused on defeating President Bush. It has also altered the nation's political landscape, with media coverage of the Democrats helping to bring down Mr. Bush's approval ratings and setting up what most observers now believe will be a highly competitive general election.
"The most fascinating [aspect of this primary race] is the revitalization among Democratic voters," says Del Ali, an independent pollster. "That's why we've got one heck of a race coming up."
Of course, the primary fight isn't over yet. Mr. Edwards maintains that if he does well enough on Super Tuesday, he can go on to battle Kerry in four Southern states - Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi - that vote the following week.
At a debate Sunday in New York, Edwards signaled his determination to fight on. He took a more aggressive posture against Kerry, casting him repeatedly as a Washington insider. At one point, Edwards seized on a newspaper report that suggested Kerry's proposals would cost more than he says, and, using a Reaganesque line to portray him as the typical politician, noted: "Here we go again."
While polls have Edwards well behind in the Super Tuesday states with the biggest delegate hauls - California and New York - they show him closing in on Kerry in Georgia. And he may have a shot at upsets in Minnesota and Ohio, where the loss of industrial jobs could create an opening for his message on trade. Edwards has also gained the support of some of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's organizers in those states, which could give him an additional boost.
"My sense is [Ohio] will probably be pretty close," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. Although polls show Kerry doing well among working-class voters, "Edwards's message on trade seems to be really resonating," he says. "There's a possibility that he's making a significant number of converts."
But Edwards has struggled to distinguish himself from Kerry on most issues. His commitment to running a largely positive campaign, which initially helped him rise above the fray, has recently made it harder for him slow Kerry down. Moreover, even if Edwards wins a few states on Tuesday, if Kerry wins the majority of the 1,151 total delegates awarded that day, the Massachusetts senator will become almost impossible to stop.
Mathematically, Edwards's challenge is steep. Since delegates are awarded proportionally, rather than under a winner-take-all system, Edwards not only has to win the majority of primaries from here, but would also have to carry those states by significant margins in order to overtake Kerry's lead in the delegate count.
That the race is already almost over is due largely to the frontloaded calendar, which has so far played out as party leaders hoped. The quick succession of early primaries now seems likely to produce a nominee by early March, allowing the party to begin devoting its attention - and money - to defeating Bush. On top of that, the nominee seems likely to emerge from the process largely unscathed - a rarity for a highly competitive primary fight.
Democratic officials say the shortened calendar has allowed more states to play a meaningful role in the process. It has also given the party an opportunity to start building organizations and energizing voters in key battlegrounds - like Ohio.
Most valuable, they say, has been the media attention that the six-week run of primaries has focused on the party. "Every morning we're waking up and seeing this race on the front pages of newspapers," says Josh Wachs, the chief operating officer of the Democratic National Committee. "It's exposing voters - and not just base voters, but swing voters - to the candidates in a more substantial and sustained way."
Still, if Kerry effectively wraps up the nomination this week or next, media attention may start to wane. So far, the impact of the Democratic race has been significant enough to draw the Bush campaign in earlier than expected: Bush has begun attacking Kerry, albeit indirectly, in speeches, and will air his first TV ads this week.
But as the Democratic competition fades, the real danger for the nominee may be that, over an eight-month general-election campaign, Bush opts largely to ignore him. "The nightmare of a [Democratic] nominee is that the White House will not engage you," says Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd. "You look like a pebble rattling around in a can, while the president is dealing with the big issues."
• Linda Feldmann and Gail Russell Chaddock contributed.