After a month of surprise, confusion and tumult, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is, suddenly, much more clear: The nomination is John Kerry's to lose.
John Edwards won in South Carolina Tuesday, and he made a strong showing in an Oklahoma race that was too close to call even after all the votes were in. But Kerry, the liberal senator from Massachusetts, took the bellwether state of Missouri by a commanding margin over Edwards. In addition, he won in Delaware, North Dakota, New Mexico, Arizona, placed a strong second in South Carolina and was running strong in Oklahoma.
Howard Dean, considered a sure winner by some pundits just a month ago, was scarcely a factor in the seven primary elections Tuesday. He predicted that his "turning point" would come Saturday in the Washington state caucuses, but even with a win there, it is difficult to imagine a run of future victories that could give him the nomination. Sen. Joe Lieberman and retired Gen. Wesley Clark posted disappointing numbers in the seven-state primary. Lieberman quit the race Tuesday night, and even if Clark holds on to his narrow lead in Oklahoma, he may not be long for the game.
Edwards staffers tried to make the best of their one victory, casting the race from here on out as a two-man contest. But Kerry, already in Seattle, delivered a front-runner's speech aimed at the Republican incumbent.
"George Bush, who speaks of strength, has made America weaker," he told cheering supporters. "Weaker economically, weaker in education, weaker in health care. And the truth is that George Bush has made America weaker by overextending the armed forces of the United states, overstraining our reserves, driving away our allies, and running the most arrogant, reckless, inept and ideological foreign policy in the modern history of our country.
"Our opponents say that they want to run on national security. Well, we will not run from that debate -- I welcome it. I will remind them happily that some of us know something about aircraft carriers for real."
But in a different forum, Kerry saved a shot for Edwards. In an interview with the Associated Press, he said he was "stunned" by his large wins in Delaware, Missouri and Arizona; he called the night a big success despite finishing second to John Edwards in South Carolina. "I compliment John Edwards but I think you have to run a national campaign, and I think that's the strength we have shown tonight," Kerry said. "You don't cherry-pick the presidency."
Pundits agreed he was by far the day's big winner.
Democratic strategist Doug Schoen was typical. If Kerry "wins in five states," Schoen told the New York Times, "it's almost over; six, almost certainly over; seven, it's over."
By Schoen's count, it's almost over.
For months, campaign strategists had looked forward to Feb. 3 as the first make-or-break date of the primary season. Because Iowa and New Hampshire are the first races in the campaign, they get a lot of attention, but they're small and not especially representative of the nation as a whole; the premium in those races is on door-to-door, face-to-face politics.
Clark all but said that the race didn't even start until Feb. 3; Lieberman, too, skipped Iowa. Clearly, they were wrong. Dean's strategy, as the underdog who became front-runner, was to dominate those first two contests so completely that he overwhelmed the opposition, leaving Feb. 3 voters no practical choice but himself. But he fared poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire, and his campaign imploded.
On Tuesday, there were races in the East, the South, the Midwest and the Southwest, a sample much closer to a cross section of the nation. Unable to be seven places at once, the candidates were forced to rely much more heavily on advertising and ground organizations -- a race similar to a national, general election campaign. And there was only one way to interpret the results: After an intense affair with Dean and an intriguing flirtation with Clark, Democrats are getting ready to tie the knot with Kerry.
It's a pragmatic choice, not one resulting from a drunken, poetic infatuation. His initials are JFK, but few have the illusion that he's a Kennedy-esque candidate. He's not especially telegenic. His can be less than inspiring on the stump. He's a millionaire in populist's clothing. He undoubtedly cast some votes as a veteran senator that will come back to haunt him. And yet, the marketplace of Democratic voters seems to be settling on him as the candidate who has the best package of attributes -- and who is, therefore, most able to defeat Bush in November.
In simplest terms, he's a conventional baby-boom liberal. Among all the Democratic candidates who have served in Congress, his ratings with the liberal Americans for Democratic Action are the highest -- 92 out of a possible 100. Even so, he has cast votes with President Bush on key issues, such as the authorization to invade Iraq -- votes that could inoculate him with some centrists and disenchanted Republicans. He has an appealing personal story line. He served with distinction in Vietnam, and has the backing of many veterans; and yet as one of the leaders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he earned credentials as an antiwar, counterculture hero.
He is, arguably, the candidate who can credibly reach to the left and the right for votes and credibly challenge Bush on national security issues -- assuming he's the Democrats' nominee.
A new CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll this week seems to bear that out. In a head-to-head match-up, Kerry defeats Bush 53 percent to 46 percent. Edwards edged Bush, too, but only by 1 percentage point -- a statistical dead heat.
That's how the dynamic seemed to play out Tuesday in Missouri, too. With attention so focused on South Carolina, the Show Me state has been almost an afterthought. But with an economy ravaged by recession and job losses, it is of critical importance to Democrats, and most analysts say it will be one of about 15 states where the presidential race will be won or lost in November. (The others include such delegate-rich states as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, along with smaller prizes like Minnesota, Oregon, Nevada, New Hampshire and Arizona.) Kerry dominated the contest Tuesday, with over 50 percent of the vote in early returns, compared to roughly 20 percent for Edwards.
Make no mistake -- the race is not over. The weeks ahead may demonstrate again the deep cultural and political disagreements that define the nation, and the Democratic Party. It appears, for now, that Edwards and perhaps Dean will be able to exploit that. Edwards' best hope is to peel off the South; Dean, fighting a guerrilla action, might hope to lock up the Left Coast with wins in Washington on Saturday and in California on March 2. (Oregon doesn't vote until May 18.)
Edwards, the boyish, first-term North Carolina senator, was in Columbia, S.C., last night, but with the Tennesee primary scheduled for next Tuesday, he was set to visit Memphis Wednesday morning and in Norfolk, Va., that afternoon.
The scheduling suggests that Edwards may not make a full-scale push in Michigan, the culturally diverse, industrial powerhouse where polls give Kerry a commanding lead heading into Saturday's caucuses. But Edwards could poll well in Tennessee and Virginia next Tuesday; if he continues to build momentum in the South, he could enter Super Tuesday on March 2 with hopes of scoring well in Texas and Georgia and, a week later, in Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Dean's campaign, once so hip and so hot, is now in disarray -- and, apparently, flaming out. He all but skipped the Feb. 3 contests, and though his supporters had low expectations, Dean's numbers may have been even worse than they expected. Preliminary results showed that he won less than 5 percent in South Carolina and Oklahoma, about 8 percent in Missouri, and roughly 10 percent in Delaware.
Now he is turning to Washington, where he has a large, energetic base of support, in hopes of breaking his fall. After mocking Kerry as "Bush-lite" earlier this week, he has continued to attack the new front-runner as a cog in the Beltway status quo. At a rally Tuesday in Spokane, he told supporters bluntly what is at stake: "If you want change in America, at 10 a.m. on Saturday you can have it because Washington state is going to be the turning point -- if we win -- of this campaign."
For the four other Democrats still in the race, Tuesday's vote was a test of viability -- and all four seemed to fail the test. Clark, the war hero and former NATO commander who was seen by some as the most capable of challenging Bush on national security grounds, may have stayed alive with an apparent victory in the close Oklahoma race. While he attracted a core of committed volunteers and high-profile endorsements, his candidacy never gelled. He had been expected to win Oklahoma, but he lost ground late to Edwards and Kerry.
His only son, 34-year-old screenwriter Wesley Clark Jr., suggested a loss in Oklahoma should compel his father to drop out of the race. But he blasted the news media yesterday for coverage of his father's campaign.
"You go out and see the way politics really works," he complained to reporters. "It is a dirty business filled with a lot of people pretending to be a lot of things that they are not ... There was a lot of sneering and whispering going on by columnists and talking heads ... It is all a horse race. No one is talking about the issues."
Lieberman, who supports the Iraq war and is the unofficial candidate of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, never found traction in a race that has been shaped in early months by Dean's fierce antiwar critique, and by a general assault on Bush that has found its courage in recent weeks. He sought hope where he could find it, touting an endorsement by the Arizona Republic as evidence of his "Joe-mentum." He was hoping for another boost in Delaware, but the "Joe-mentum" turned to "slo-mentum" there. Kerry won the state, and soon after the polls closed there, Lieberman quit the race.
Dennis Kucinich, the leftist congressman from Ohio, did nothing Tuesday night to improve on his weak showing in earlier races.
The Rev. Al Sharpton finished far off the lead in South Carolina yesterday, with 10 percent of the vote, but early reports suggested that even African-American voters there preferred Kerry and Dean. The New York civil rights leader was hit this week by reports in Salon and elsewhere that he has made a de facto alliance with a Republican campaign team, which apparently helped raise the money to keep him in the race.
Now, and perhaps for the next month, it's a two-man race, with Kerry clearly the dominant force and Edwards a long shot: Dean could theoretically still be a factor, but that's looking less and less likely. Even if Kerry is able to hold his momentum, fascinating political questions will be playing out just below the surface of the campaign.
Is Edwards running for vice president, and when will he make that decision? Last night, he insisted that's not the case. "I think this is the continuation of the surge we've seen in the other caucuses and primaries," he said. "We're in as good of financial shape as any campaign in the race." If Kerry creams him in the big March 2 primaries, packed with states like California and New York that are likely to swing to the Massachusetts senator, will Edwards remain in the race, tantalized by the March 9 primaries in Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana? If he does well there and thinks he has a shot, he could conceivably remain in the race all the way through June 1, trying to pick up states like North Carolina, Kentucky and Alabama.
Such a move, however, would likely hurt Democratic Party unity. An earlier Edwards departure would make it easier for Kerry to select him as a running mate, a development many are predicting.
Dean insisted again last night that he's in the race for the long haul. "We're going to keep going and going and going and going," he told supporters in Tacoma, "just like the Energizer Bunny." But on MSNBC's "Hardball," Dean qualified that slightly. "Is the long haul February 17 in Wisconsin?" asked host Chris Matthews. "No," Dean replied, "the long haul is March 2nd."
If he stays in, what's his objective? Though he insists he can win the nomination, he's lost in nine states and won in none -- voters aren't drinking the Kool-Aid. He might pin his hopes on March 2, but unlike with Edwards, the primary schedule offers him no hope after that. If he doesn't win on Super Tuesday, he's finished. At what point does he hurt the party's effort to defeat Bush?
Perhaps his goal is to keep Kerry honest, and to maintain the influence of the Deaniacs on the party agenda as long as possible. If that effort keeps his supporters engaged and energized, and if it doesn't become destructive, Dean can take satisfaction that, even in a losing effort, his effort has helped the party. And in the end, that would be good for Kerry, too.
Laura McClure and Mark Follman contributed to this report.