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Exit Polls Spot Vulnerabilities in Kerry’s Show of Strength

Times Staff Writer

John F. Kerry’s near sweep of Tuesday’s seven primaries and caucuses underscored his strength in the Democratic presidential race. But the results also identified possible chinks in his armor that could let a rival -- probably John Edwards -- mount a drive to stop him.

On a night that saw onetime frontrunner Howard Dean finish far behind in almost every contest, Kerry’s victories in states as diverse as Delaware, Missouri and Arizona demonstrated again the breadth of his reach across the Democratic Party.

Exit polls in the three most seriously contested states -- Arizona, Oklahoma and South Carolina -- showed that the Massachusetts senator was benefiting from a growing conviction among Democratic voters that he was more electable and experienced than his rivals.

But the surveys also raised red flags for the leader. The polls showed that Kerry, who has been trying to shed an image as an aloof patrician, fared worse among voters who said their priority was a candidate who cared about people like them.

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And Edwards beat Kerry among voters in South Carolina and Oklahoma who said their priority was the economy. Those were the two states where Edwards campaigned the most.

These findings suggest an opening for the North Carolina senator to run a “lunch bucket” campaign of tough-on-trade, economic populism aimed at blue-collar voters and those without college educations.

Edwards, who has been reluctant to draw contrasts with Kerry, hinted at such an effort Tuesday on CNN. He cited his modest background and his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement as two of their principal differences.

“I think these differences will become clearer and clearer as the race focuses on the two of us,” Edwards said.

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Retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who won Oklahoma, showed some of the same strengths as Kerry. He impressed voters with his experience and conviction, the exit polls found.

The challenge for Clark could be establishing a clear contrast with Kerry. In a late-night appearance on CNN, he immediately tried to do just that. Citing Kerry’s votes for the war with Iraq and President Bush’s education reform plan, Clark said: “I’m an outsider; I haven’t been in the Senate.... I’m not someone who is part of the Washington problem. I’m the solution to the Washington problem.”

Edwards and Clark are hoping to trip Kerry next Tuesday in two Southern states, Tennessee and Virginia. But whatever momentum either develops from Tuesday’s results could quickly dim if Kerry dominates the contests this weekend in Michigan, Washington and Maine.

“If they go through this weekend and get on the board nowhere, how in the world do they deal with next Tuesday?” said veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, an aide to the failed candidacy of Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.).

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The exit polls were conducted by Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International, a cooperative arrangement among the broadcast television networks, CNN and Associated Press. The survey sampled 2,033 voters in 40 precincts in South Carolina, 1,501 voters in 35 precincts in Oklahoma and 2,093 voters in 35 precincts in Arizona. The margin of sampling error for each state was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Arizona and South Carolina were seen as potential bellwether states because they offered the first opportunity for large numbers of Latino and African American voters to register a verdict on the candidates. But neither voter bloc proved decisive in the results.

Latinos, about one-sixth of the voters in Arizona, gave Kerry almost the same margin over Clark as non-Latinos did.

In South Carolina, African Americans cast nearly half the ballots and narrowly preferred Edwards over Kerry, with the Rev. Al Sharpton finishing third with about one-fifth of their vote.

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The withdrawal from the race of Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut on Tuesday night shows that as the race proceeds, it grows more difficult for candidates to attract an audience if they are not seen as viable contenders for the nomination.

“If the voters get a whiff that you are not really alive, it’s tough to recover from that, as Dr. Dean is finding out tonight,” said Carrick.

Indeed, the results put an exclamation point on Dean’s stunning decline from frontrunner to also-ran. He finished a distant fourth in South Carolina (where he bought nearly $1 million in television ads) and a distant third in Arizona (where he spent more than $1.4 million).

Dean’s decline was so thorough that in Arizona, where he once looked strong, he finished well behind both Kerry and Clark even among voters who said their top concern was the war in Iraq, the exit polls found. Opposition to the war had fueled Dean’s rise last year.

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While Dean is hoping to slow his slide in the contests in Michigan and Washington on Saturday and Maine on Sunday, Tuesday’s decisive defeats can only complicate his challenge by deepening the sense that his candidacy is doomed.

By contrast, Edwards’ victory in South Carolina, his strong showing in Oklahoma and his second-place finish in Missouri (far behind Kerry but well ahead of all the others) will allow him to fight another day.

Clark’s Oklahoma win, and his second-place finishes in Arizona, New Mexico and North Dakota, will allow him to press ahead as well.

But amid Kerry’s string of wins, it’s not clear whether either Edwards or Clark can transform the race’s dynamic or merely postpone their withdrawals.

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Although Kerry ran well with virtually every demographic group in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two contests, Tuesday’s results showed a more distinct pattern in Arizona, Oklahoma and South Carolina, according to the exit polls.

In those three states, Kerry’s main asset was the belief that he represented the Democrats’ best chance of beating Bush in November -- a perception that may have been fueled by a series of national polls this week showing him leading Bush in head-to-head matchups.

In Oklahoma and South Carolina, about one-fifth of voters said the ability to beat Bush was the quality that mattered most in deciding their vote; Kerry carried a clear majority of those voters in both states. The share of voters in Arizona focused on beating Bush was even higher, and they backed Kerry by an even higher percentage.

“What Kerry has cemented in now is the perception that he can beat Bush, and nobody else has that,” said Tony Coelho, a longtime Democratic strategist. “I would say that is what is creating the momentum and is allowing him to take off.”

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Experience was another big asset for Kerry. Voters who said that was their top priority gave him big margins in Arizona and South Carolina, and he ran a solid second behind Clark among those voters in Oklahoma, the exit polls found.

On issues, the exit polls found Kerry ran well among voters concerned about healthcare.

But in all three states, most voters cited the economy as their top concern. In Arizona, where Edwards didn’t seriously compete, Kerry carried a plurality of them.

But in South Carolina, Edwards beat Kerry among such voters by 2 to 1; he also won handily among economically focused voters in Oklahoma.

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Nor did Kerry run well among voters who said the trait they most prized in their candidate was empathy for ordinary people.

Clark ran ahead of Kerry among those voters in Arizona; Edwards carried those voters by 3 to 1 in South Carolina and more than 2 to 1 in Oklahoma.

Edwards also beat Kerry soundly in Oklahoma and South Carolina among voters who consider themselves moderates or conservatives.

All of this spotlights the potential for an Edwards challenge to Kerry -- especially if he continues to sharpen his message against him -- and the huge hurdle still looming for the North Carolina senator.

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The South Carolina and Oklahoma results suggest that in states where many voters lack college educations and consider themselves moderates, Edwards may be able to carve out a niche as a more centrist, empathetic and populist alternative.

But results also show that in states where Edwards doesn’t have the time or money to offer himself as an alternative to Kerry, the natural inclination of most voters will be to flow toward the frontrunner.

Clark faces a similar dynamic and the added burden of establishing a clear niche against Kerry.

In both Arizona and Oklahoma, Clark demonstrated steady appeal across the party, and attracted many voters on the basis of his experience, but he didn’t establish a decisive advantage anywhere.

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