`Super' states may end doubt for Democrats

Kerry looks for sweep, Edwards aims to hang on

Maryland, 9 others voting today

Election 2004

Super Tuesday

March 02, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - John Kerry will try to ring down the curtain on the Democratic presidential contest today, after a two-month run that has gotten his party off to a solid start for the general election campaign against President Bush.

A sweep, or near-sweep, of Super Tuesday primaries by the Massachusetts senator would effectively end the Democratic race. Today is the largest Election Day of the primary season, with contests in 10 states, including Maryland, and roughly half the delegates needed to win the nomination at stake.

Kerry's main rival, John Edwards, wants to do well enough to extend his campaign for at least another week. The North Carolina senator has won just one of the first 20 contests and lags far behind Kerry in the delegate count.

Neither candidate has been willing, for different reasons, to acknowledge that the race may be ending.

Kerry, eager to avoid appearing overconfident, maintains that he is taking nothing for granted. Edwards insists that he will remain in the race even if he loses every state today because he hopes to do well in four Southern contests March 9.

But at a news conference yesterday in Toledo, Ohio, Edwards acknowledged: "At some point, I've got to start getting more delegates or I'm not going to be the nominee."

Ohio, expected to be a showdown state in the November election, has been the central big-state battleground on Super Tuesday, eclipsing California and New York, which have more delegates but seem out of reach for Edwards.

Kerry leads in all of today's major primary states, according to pre-election polling. In California and New York, his advantage over Edwards is 3-to-1 or better, based on the most recent voter surveys.

Edwards is hoping to pull off upset victories in enough states to keep top Democrats from calling publicly for him to abandon his candidacy. His best chances of defeating Kerry today may be in states where he spent the final day of the campaign, Ohio and Georgia, and possibly Minnesota, a caucus state where he has sought support from former Howard Dean backers.

Edwards has scheduled a Super Tuesday election-night celebration in Atlanta. Recent opinion surveys showed him trailing Kerry by about 20 points in Georgia, whose primary voters are more liberal than the state's largely conservative Republican electorate.

The Edwards camp, dismissing his weak poll numbers, hopes for a late surge of support similar to one in Wisconsin two weeks ago that pulled him within 6 percentage points of Kerry on election day after Edwards had trailed by as much as 30 points.

But the biggest obstacle facing Edwards isn't poll numbers; it's his party's nominating rules, which are stacked heavily against him and in favor of the front-running Kerry. National convention delegates are awarded on a proportional basis, which means that even if Kerry loses a state, he could still gain a significant number of delegates there.

The most recent count shows Kerry with nearly 700 delegates, to just more than 200 for Edwards. Those totals include superdelegates - senators, con- gressmen, and other party officials and dignitaries whose votes have been promised to a candidate but are not pledged as a result of balloting.

It will take a majority, or 2,162 delegates, to win the nomination. A total of 1,151 pledged delegates are being awarded in today's voting.

If Kerry sweeps the 10 Super Tuesday states, he will still be at least 600 short of the magic number needed to clinch the nomination. Not until sometime later this month, at the earliest, could he reach that point, according to Democrats with experience in delegate counting.

Mark Siegel, a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee, estimated that if Edwards scored upset victories in Ohio and Georgia today, Kerry would still finish Super Tuesday with about 1,400 delegates, to about 650 for Edwards.

Even if one accepts Edwards' "rosy scenario" for today's primaries, Siegel said, "it doesn't work" in terms of positioning him to win the nomination.

Siegel said it would be unrealistic to expect Edwards to win enough primaries in the remaining states by wide enough margins to overtake Kerry. He predicted Kerry will amass enough delegates to secure the nomina- tion by the Illinois primary on March 16. That is the same date, under the Edwards campaign's optimistic scenario, that the momentum in the nomination race would finally shift its way.

Kerry campaigned in Ohio and Georgia yesterday after a morning stop at Morgan State University in Baltimore. He plans to hold his election-night party in Washington, D.C. The party, originally scheduled for Tampa, Fla., was moved to the capital so Kerry would be available for important Senate votes on a gun control measure.

Florida, which decided the 2000 presidential election, is one of four states holding delegate contests next Tuesday, along with Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

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