Sen. John F. Kerry racked up big victories Tuesday in Virginia and Tennessee, proving he can win Southern votes and chasing retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark from the Democratic field.
The Massachusetts senator finished well ahead of both Clark, an Arkansan, and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, denying each a badly needed triumph in their native region.
Hours after the polls closed, Clark decided to abandon his campaign, scheduling an announcement today in his hometown of Little Rock. Despite his stellar resume and impressive fund-raising, the retired four-star general managed just a single victory, a squeaker last week in Oklahoma which kept his campaign alive an extra seven days.
On Tuesday, he placed a distant third behind Edwards in Tennessee and Virginia.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is focusing entirely on Wisconsin’s primary next Tuesday, finished in single digits in the two contests, along with Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York.
A buoyant Kerry, appearing Tuesday night before more than 2,000 supporters in Fairfax, Va. , told the cheering crowd, “Once again the message rings out loud and clear. Americans are voting for change -- East and West, North and now in the South.” Thanking the voters of Virginia and Tennessee, Kerry continued: “You have shown that mainstream values that we share -- fairness, love of country, a belief in hope and in hard work -- are more important than boundaries and birthplace.”
Clark addressed backers at a downtown Memphis hotel, revealing nothing of his intentions.
“We may have lost this battle today, but I’ll tell you that we’re not going to lose the battle for America’s future,” he told about 200 supporters. Not long after, aides confirmed that Clark would end his candidacy.
“He made this decision after discussing it with his family, with his staff,” spokesman Matt Bennett said late Tuesday night on CNN. “The decision wasn’t made until just moments ago. It was a very difficult decision to make, obviously.”
Edwards left the South before the polls closed, flying on to campaign in Milwaukee.
Speaking to more than 200 people Tuesday night in the ballroom of the American Serb Hall, he vowed to press on with his candidacy. “Thank you to the voters who voted today in the election for saying to the country we’re going to have a campaign and an election, not a coronation,” Edwards said.
Kerry’s twin victories pushed his primary season record to 12 wins in 14 contests, but even more significant, it answered one of the big questions hanging over his steamrolling candidacy, showing that he can do well in the South.
Kerry’s two losses came last week in South Carolina, where Edwards won handily and Kerry finished second, and Oklahoma, where Kerry finished third behind Edwards.
“Winning two Southern states against two native sons bolsters his case that he’s a candidate who can run a nationwide campaign,” said Mark Rozell, a professor of political science at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps more important, Rozell said, Kerry’s victories in Tennessee and Virginia undercuts the argument of Clark and Edwards that Democrats must nominate a Southerner to have any chance of competing in the region against President Bush.
“That whole Southern appeal argument seems to vanish at this point,” said Rozell, though, he added, beating Bush in the South remains an uphill fight for any Democrat.
But on Tuesday night Kerry suggested he would not cede any ground.
Speaking at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., a Washington suburb, he struck the populist note that has been the hallmark of his revitalized campaign, saying that his candidacy spoke for mainstream Americans everywhere.
His campaign, Kerry said, “is the voice of workers without work.... It is the voice of parents who want to hand this country on to their children without the heavy burden of national deficits and federal debt.”
Charging that the Bush administration “failed to tell the truth about the economy,” he said, “From Missouri to Wisconsin to Ohio, from the heartland to both coasts, the wreckage of the Bush economy can be seen all around us.”
Capping a week in which he racked up victories across the nation, Kerry continued to show strong support across the breadth of the Democratic Party.
Interviews with voters leaving polling places in Virginia and Tennessee found him outpolling Edwards and Clark among men and women, young and old voters, the college-educated and those with no college degree, the affluent and those making less than $50,000 a year.
Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, beat Clark, the former NATO commander, by a considerable margin among fellow veterans, and also carried black voters over Edwards and Sharpton, the sole African American in the Democratic field.
With such wide-ranging support for Kerry, it was unclear what corner of the market was left for his challengers.
“Right now it doesn’t seem so much a contest about who becomes the alternative [to Kerry] as whether the Democratic electorate sees a need for an alternative,” said Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist who is watching the primary contest from the sidelines.
“Clearly, the other campaigns will have to make a core decision about whether they choose to continue given the fact Kerry has demonstrated that he can win in every region by substantial margins.”
Resounding victories in Virginia and Tennessee, where Kerry expended relatively modest resources, demonstrated the huge momentum he gained from surprise wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, the opening rounds of the Democratic nominating fight.
In an e-mail to reporters, the Kerry campaign pointed out that “in Tennessee, a month ago we were at 4 percent, in fifth place. In Virginia, Kerry’s last poll before the Iowa caucuses showed him drawing 7% and in fourth place among Democratic candidates.”
Kerry’s winning surge was a particular blow to Clark, who counted on at least one breakthrough victory Tuesday and outspent Kerry and Edwards by a considerable margin in both states.
Clark spent $1.2 million on TV ads in Virginia alone, compared with just about half that for Kerry, $698,000, and $259,000 for Edwards. In Tennessee, Clark spent $1.06 million on TV spots, compared with about $189,000 for Edwards and $160,000 for Kerry, according to data compiled for The Times by TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Along with his big TV budget, Clark also kept up a punishing schedule of appearances across the two states. The career military officer spent most of his time assailing Edwards, leaving Kerry above the fray and free to concentrate his energies on Bush.
Clark’s skirmishing with Edwards reflected a sense that of the two Southerners, only one would survive Tuesday’s test of strength as a viable alternative to the front-runner from Massachusetts.
With Clark’s decision to quit, the Democratic field has been cut nearly in half over the last month. Also gone from the race are former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who quit a week ago after being shut out in seven states on Feb. 3.
Hours before Tuesday’s votes were counted, the Edwards campaign held a conference call with reporters in which strategists emphasized the senator’s intention to stay in the nominating race. “Obviously, Kerry has a lot of momentum,” said Nick Baldick, the manager of Edwards’ campaign. But at a certain point, he suggested, Kerry’s momentum would ebb and “the voters are going to pause” for a longer look at those still in the field.
For the first time, however, Edwards strategists acknowledged they may not have enough money to compete in all the March 2 states. Among those voting that day are California, New York and Ohio.
Asked whether party officials had begun pressuring Edwards to step aside, Baldick said: “I have not gotten a single phone call from anybody suggesting that.”
For his part, Dean never mentioned Tennessee or Virginia during a day of campaigning across Wisconsin.
Appearing Tuesday night on CNN, Dean congratulated Kerry on his victories, but suggested a Kerry administration would not be much different from the Bush administration. “We’ll find out if Wisconsin voters think John Kerry is really about change,” Dean said. “I think we need real change.”
Kerry, meantime, gilded his success at the polls Tuesday by picking up three more endorsements, winning the backing of fellow Sen. Herbert Kohl of Wisconsin and two of the state’s congressman, David Obey and Ron Kind.
After Tuesday night’s celebration, Kerry planned to take time off the campaign trail today and Thursday before heading to Wisconsin on Friday.
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*--* John F. Kerry 41% John Edwards 26% Wesley K. Clark 23% Howard Dean 4% Al Sharpton 2% Dennis J. Kucinich 1%
*--* Kerry 52% Edwards 27% Clark 9% Dean 7% Sharpton 3% Kucinich 1%
Source: Associated PressSome figures do not total 100% because fringe candidates and those who left the race are not listed.
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Here is the breakdown of presidential preferences of delegates to the Democratic National Convention. It includes choices by “super delegates,” those not picked through primaries or caucuses and who can change their minds.
Needed to nominate: 2,161
*--* John F. Kerry 516 Howard Dean 182 John Edwards 165 Wesley K. Clark 102 Al Sharpton 12 Dennis J. Kucinich 2
Times staff writers Nick Anderson, Matea Gold, Scott Martelle and Eric Slater contributed to this report.