CNN and Fox News have both projected John Kerry the winner in Wisconsin, but not without a serious fight: John Edwards staged a surprising rally tonight with the support of last-minute voters and independents.
Several factors may have boosted Edwards. Over the holiday weekend, he picked up two endorsements from Wisconsin newspapers, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Capital Times in Madison. That may have had an outsized effect: According to the Associated Press, "exit polls showed that half of the voters made their selection in the last week, most in the last few days -- and Edwards led among late-breakers."
His populist message may have played well across the state, too. Wisconsin's blue-collar populace, which has lost tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs through the recession, has no love for the North American Free Trade Agreement signed into law by President Clinton in 1993. And Edwards hammered away at Kerry on the trade issue all day Monday. "I'm against NAFTA, I was against NAFTA. Governor Dean and Senator Kerry were for it," Edwards repeated at virtually every campaign stop, according to the New York Times.
Speaking to supporters some 80 minutes after the polls closed, Kerry sounded familiar themes as he looked past his Democratic opponents to press the attack against Bush. "We will outsource George Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans," he said, "so that we can invest in health care and education for our country."
CNN reported that Kerry easily outpolled Edwards and Dean among self-identified Democratic voters. But Wisconsin has an "open" primary, meaning that independents and Republicans can vote in the Democratic race. And Edwards made a strong showing among the independents, taking 39 percent to 27 percent for Kerry and 16 percent for Dean in one exit poll.
Asked tonight by CNN's Larry King about his strength among independents, Edwards said, "I think it means I can beat George Bush. If we're going to win the general election, we're going to need independents."
He was generous toward Howard Dean, who is expected to finish a distant third. "He's brought a lot to this race," Edwards told CNN. "I share his view that we desperately need change." Dean returns to his Burlington, VT, headquarters late tonight, and though he insisted through today that he'll soldier on, he's widely expected to drop out of the race soon.
The question now on everybody's mind: Can Edwards prove a formidable contender against Kerry in a two-man race, with Dean all but out of the way? Or has Edwards -- who has only won a single state to Kerry's 15 out of 17 so far -- simply shored up his chances for a vice presidential offer from the Massachusetts senator?
When CNN political commentator Bob Dole asked Edwards tonight if he would consider Kerry as his own running mate, the North Carolina senator laughed. "I would certainly give him serious consideration," he said.