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Kerry Keeps Momentum, Winning Maine Race

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Times Staff Writers

Sen. John F. Kerry’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination rolled along Sunday, as he scooped up a victory in Maine’s party caucuses -- his third this weekend. He now turns toward primaries in Virginia and Tennessee on Tuesday.

Kerry’s closest rivals scrambled to slow his momentum, but they came up empty-handed.

State by state, Democrats continued to fall into line behind the senator from Massachusetts. With 50% of the statewide vote tabulated, Kerry had 45% of the vote. Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, had 26%, and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, making his strongest showing to date, had 15%.

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark of Arkansas, neither of whom had focused on Maine, finished a distant fourth and fifth.

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At midnight, state party officials said they were continuing to enter data streaming in from distant towns and cities but would not make any more caucus results public until this morning.

With his victories Saturday in Michigan and Washington state, Kerry had more than twice the number of delegates to the Democratic National Convention as Dean, his closest competitor.

His success in Maine pushed his total to 426, compared with Dean’s 184, according to Associated Press. The votes of 2,161 delegates are needed to win the party’s presidential nomination at the July convention in Boston.

The caucuses in Maine were the first step in selecting 24 convention delegates.

Buoyed by his 10th victory after 12 Democratic contests, Kerry let his competitors scrap among one another. He set his sights on President Bush.

In a written statement after Sunday’s tally, he said: “The voters of Maine have sent a message that George Bush’s days are numbered and change is coming to America.”

“When the American people are faced with a choice between the extreme direction the Bush administration has taken us and the mainstream values I will fight for, we will win that fight,” he said.

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Kerry dispatched surrogates to represent him at the caucuses, among them his brother Cam and Maine Gov. John E. Baldacci. Dean and Kucinich went so far as to make personal appeals at caucus meetings; Maine allowed the candidates to campaign at the sessions themselves.

For Dean, it was not an easy pitch.

One day after the caucuses in Michigan and Washington state the onetime front-runner struggled to keep voters focused on something other than polls and his losing streak. Dean had hoped that an independent, even iconoclastic, streak in Maine voters would lead them to buck results elsewhere.

But as his losses stack up, the Feb. 17 primary in Wisconsin, a week from Tuesday, takes on ever-greater importance. He has said his candidacy is doomed if he does not win there.

On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” he acknowledged that Kerry’s wins make his front-runner status appear insurmountable.

“Momentum is important certainly no one would argue that Sen. Kerry doesn’t have a great deal of momentum right now, and momentum does affect people,” Dean said. “People like to go with the person they perceive as a winner.”

Still, Dean rejected intimations by host Bob Schieffer that his campaign was on the brink of extinction.

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He added: “At some point here ... people will say, ‘Now wait a minute here, let’s really have a close look at this.’ ”

Kerry’s other major rivals -- Clark and Edwards -- said they weren’t leaving the race, even if they lost primaries in Virginia and Tennessee on Tuesday.

Clark said he would pursue a strenuous campaign in Wisconsin, regardless of the outcome this week in Tennessee, where he has zeroed in for votes. And Edwards, presenting himself as the candidate of the South, was under pressure to finish first on the first day when all the voting was taking place in the South.

“I view this very much as a long-term process, and we’re in this for the long term,” Edwards said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Clark and Edwards have scored one primary win apiece , but with each victory, Kerry’s campaign has assumed ever more the tenor of front-runner, in pace and message. And so it was on a relatively slow-moving Sunday, as he turned his focus to the Tuesday contests.

Dean, Edwards and Clark appeared on Sunday news shows. Then Dean sped through Maine from caucus town to caucus town. Edwards visited three churches in Virginia. Clark kept to the frenetic pace in Wisconsin, typical of the 18- and 20-hour days in which he has made as many as eight public appearances.

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Kerry picked up the endorsement of Gov. Mark R. Warner of Virginia. He went to one church. And he watched NBC’s “Meet the Press,” on which President Bush was interviewed.

He scheduled only one large public event: a raucous rally of more than 1,000 people at a high school gymnasium in Chesapeake, a conservative military community in the Virginia tidewater region. Just as the sun had set over the Norfolk harbor, he also squeezed in a visit to the battleship Wisconsin, decommissioned three years ago.

Kerry’s service in uniform -- he was a Navy lieutenant in Vietnam, where he was decorated for valor -- offers him common ground with voters in Virginia’s southeastern corner.

It is heavily populated by military families with ties to the Navy, Marines and Air Force. Kerry wasted no time introducing himself -- a candidate from the country’s Northeast, where Democrats have long been associated with the most liberal causes.

Kerry said he would “always maintain the strongest military in the world.”

He promised that he would not hesitate to deploy troops when they were needed. But he criticized the Bush administration for sending American troops to what he said was an unwarranted war.

And in bringing up his Vietnam service, he drew a silent contrast with Bush, whose time in the Air National Guard in the early 1970s was spent largely in Texas and Alabama.

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“I will tell you this, as a veteran of Vietnam, as someone who was once an instrument of our foreign policy, as someone who remembers what it’s like to fight in a war when you lose the consent and legitimacy of your own people: I believe that the president owes it to the American people to give real meaning to the words ‘last resort’ when you talk about war,” Kerry said.

Scolding Bush over the rising cost of healthcare, he said: “Something is wrong, and George Bush has no answer at all, no program at all, none, nothing, nada, niente.”

Campaigning in Wisconsin, Sunday, Clark renewed his effort to set himself apart from Edwards and Kerry, criticizing their tax proposals.

“They talk about the middle class but they don’t do anything for the middle class in terms of tax cuts,” he said to reporters at the airport in Racine.

“What they’re doing is basically ... taking the Bush tax cuts back for those who make over $200,000. What I’m talking about is actually helping families making less than $100,000, and doing it without adding to the deficit.”

Clark’s tax proposal would eliminate federal income taxes for a family of four making $50,000 or less and would provide some tax relief to any family of four earning less than $100,000.

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Edwards spent much of Sunday morning in church. He stopped at three churches serving largely African American congregations in Richmond, Va. At one, he followed the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York.

At each, he delivered an abbreviated version of his campaign speech. He avoided any mention of Bush from the pulpit.

“We shouldn’t have two economies in this country -- one for all those families who are secure; their children, their grandchildren will always be secure. And then one for most of America, families who work paycheck to paycheck. They can’t save any money because it takes every dime they make to pay their bills,” he said to applause at the Holy Trinity Baptist Church.

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Gerstenzang reported from Washington, D.C., and La Ganga from Chesapeake, Va. Times staff writers James Rainey, Eric Slater and Scott Martelle contributed to this report.

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