Kerry holds off Edwards to win Wis.

Their contest much closer than was expected

Dean finishes a distant third

Edwards enjoys surge of support

Dean heads home to Vt. to decide whether to quit

Election 2004

Wisconsin Primary

February 18, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MILWAUKEE -- John Kerry pulled further away from his Democratic rivals yesterday with a tighter-than-expected Wisconsin primary victory over a fast-closing John Edwards.

The contest now becomes a two-man affair, as Kerry and Edwards prepare to face off in two weeks on the biggest primary day of the year, when 10 states, including California, New York, Ohio and Maryland, cast "Super Tuesday" votes.

Howard Dean finished a distant third, effectively ending a presidential candidacy that rose and fell more spectacularly than any in recent history. Dean's remarks last night left little doubt that he knows his campaign is over, with a formal withdrawal announcement expected soon.

Kerry is still strongly favored to become the nominee, but Edwards emerged from Wisconsin with his status enhanced as the only real challenger left in the race.

Last night, Kerry appeared unruffled by his close call in a state where polls had showed him leading by more than 30 percentage points just a few days ago.

"Every week across our country, wherever we go, we're feeling the power of change that is sweeping across this nation," the Massachusetts senator told backers at a victory celebration outside Madison, the Wisconsin capital.

In a nod to voter anger over the outsourcing of American jobs, an issue that seemed to help Edwards here, Kerry vowed to "outsource George Bush's unaffordable tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, so we can invest in health care and education in this country."

Edwards, exultant over his stunning surge, which he said surprised even him, delivered a bold warning to the front-runner: "The voters of Wisconsin," he boasted, had "sent a clear message: ... `Objects in your mirror may be closer than they appear.'"

Dean, meantime, was able to poke fun at himself, referring in what might well have been his last election-night speech to another disastrous election night -- in Iowa, just one month ago -- that sealed his doom as a presidential contender.

"You all make me so happy I could just scream," a smiling Dean told supporters at a Madison hotel.

His post-election remarks had a valedictory air, with Dean thanking those labor union supporters who hadn't deserted him for "sticking with us right to the end." One of his major labor backers, the public employees union, withdrew its support earlier this month.

Repeatedly, Dean told the crowd that "we are not done yet." But those remarks more likely referred to his plans to create a new, longer-range political movement rather than his intention to pursue a futile nomination quest.

Kerry, who had been expected to win easily, was forced to make a last-minute round of campaigning around Madison after early exit poll data suggested a tighter-than-expected finish.

"We really don't take anything for granted," he told CNN shortly before the polls closed. "You have to work for every vote."

But, Kerry added, "I want to make it clear that I am the strongest candidate to take on George Bush. ... We need a nominee of our party who has the ability to stand up to him and go toe-to-toe."

Edwards, who had been in single digits in Wisconsin polling 10 days before the primary, wound up with roughly one-third of the vote. The North Carolina senator said a two-person race with Kerry, which effectively begins today, was "the moment I've been looking for."

In an interview on CNN's Larry King Live, the North Carolina senator said there were "real differences" between him and Kerry.

Speaking from Milwaukee, Edwards said he offered voters "somebody who comes from them, who understands the problems that they have in their lives, who understands what the loss of a job means, who has the trade policy and tax policy that will work for all Americans, and not just the privileged few."

Edward was helped by the state's election law, which allows any registered voter to participate in the Democratic primary. According to an election-day survey of voters as they left their polling places, Edwards' strongest support came from voters in the Republican-leaning suburbs of Milwaukee, the state's largest city.

One in 10 voters was a Republican, and half of them chose Edwards, the exit poll found. By contrast, Kerry ran about 20 percentage points ahead of Edwards among self-identified Democrats.

Kerry plans campaign stops today in Ohio, a major industrial state that holds its primary a week from next Tuesday. Only one of the Super Tuesday states, Georgia, is in southerner Edwards' home region. Edwards is also targeting Ohio, which might be receptive to his protectionist trade message, as Wisconsin was.

Kerry continued to ride the momentum of his earlier victories, as those who voted for him yesterday repeated the pattern of earlier primaries.

His perceived electability made the difference in the election, the exit poll found. Half his voters said Kerry's potential to defeat President Bush was the main reason they supported him, rather than his position on issues.

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