Stature as a rival to Bush enhanced

Analysis

Election 2004

February 11, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- John Kerry appears to have the Democratic presidential nomination within his grasp after convincing victories in the latest primaries, party strategists and analysts said last night.

By sweeping yesterday's Southern elections, the Massachusetts senator has won Democratic contests in every section of the country. He has captured 12 of the first 14 states, mostly by substantial margins, and does not appear to have a serious challenge in upcoming delegate tests.

"The race, for all intents and purposes, is locked up," said Steve Richetti, a top Clinton White House aide, who is neutral in the Democratic race. "Kerry's not just winning the Democratic primaries. He's enormously enhanced his stature as a formidable competitor to Bush. That doesn't always occur in a primary season. What's dramatic about this is that we're only in mid-February."

It will take several more weeks of primaries, at least, before Kerry can win enough convention delegates to guarantee his nomination. But barring unexpected developments, the 60-year-old Boston liberal will likely be the Democratic challenger against President Bush this fall.

Unusual factors

In his march toward the nomination, Kerry has benefited from several unusual factors.

A new primary calendar, which compressed more states into January and February than ever before, magnified the importance of his victories in the first two contests. His rivals have been unable to brake his momentum since he won Iowa, just three weeks ago.

They face another uphill fight in next Tuesday's Wisconsin primary, where polls show Kerry with a big lead.

Kerry has also had the good fortune of competing in a large field of candidates with few real issue differences among them. That has fragmented the opposition and made it difficult for a single rival to engage him in a head-to-head duel.

In addition, the lessons many Democrats drew from early skirmishing in Iowa, where negative campaign tactics apparently backfired on those who used them, made Kerry's opponents wary of aggressively attacking him once he emerged as the front-runner.

The remaining contenders will come under increasing pressure to withdraw. Party leaders had said in advance of yesterday's contests that if the Southern candidates -- Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, from Arkansas -- failed to defeat Kerry in the South, they should quit.

Clark did just that, dropping out of the race late last night.

But Edwards and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean intend to challenge Kerry in Wisconsin, and perhaps beyond, hoping that the front-runner will stumble or that voters will start to sour on him.

Two minor candidates, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, also say they plan to keep running all the way to the convention this summer.

Kerry, eager to put the primaries behind him, began his first tentative effort yesterday to nudge others from the race.

The senator's campaign released an endorsement statement from Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, an important liberal who had supported Rep. Richard A. Gephardt. In it, Obey praised the top contenders, including Dean, who he said "energized the Democratic Party when Democrats were faint of heart."

"But," Obey said, "the time for preliminary skirmishes is over. We need to close ranks and get about the task of putting a Democrat in the White House. John Kerry has built a record of integrity, toughness, honor, and justice."

When to exit

Democratic strategists said that until his rivals pull out, Kerry cannot consolidate his efforts for the fight against Bush.

The senator, who owes his campaign $6.4 million borrowed on his Boston townhouse, needs to raise a substantial amount of money to sustain him during the period leading up to the national convention in July.

Bush's campaign will have as much as $200 million to spend during that period, and much of it is likely to be used for ads attacking his Democratic opponent.

Steve Murphy, who was Gephardt's campaign manager, said the remaining question for Democrats concerns the timing of the other candidates' departure from the contest. "The race is over now," Murphy said. "Democratic primary voters are in the process of tuning out the nomination fight. They're ready to get on with the business of beating George W. Bush. Dean and Edwards are just seeking the right moment to exit."

Murphy and others noted that Kerry had begun turning his attention toward Bush over the past week or two.

During that period, public opinion polls have shown the potential for a close election in November between Bush and Kerry.

An immediate decision for Kerry strategists will be what to do about the remaining scheduled Democratic debates, starting with Sunday's 90-minute forum in Milwaukee. Kerry is the only major candidate who has not said he will appear.

According to Edwards' campaign manager, Nick Baldick, at least a half-dozen other debates are scheduled between now and Super Tuesday, March 2.

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