Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry rolled up big victories and a pile of delegates in five states Tuesday night, while rivals John Edwards and Wesley Clark kept their candidacies alive with singular triumphs in a dramatic cross-country contest.
Edwards easily won his native South Carolina and Clark, a retired Army general from Arkansas, eked out victory in neighboring Oklahoma. Howard Dean earned no wins and a handful of delegates, his candidacy in peril. Joe Lieberman was shut out, too, and dropped out of the race.
“It’s a huge night,” Kerry told The Associated Press, even as rivals denied him a coveted sweep.
Racking up victories in Missouri, Arizona, North Dakota, New Mexico and Delaware, Kerry suggested that his rivals were regional candidates.
“I compliment John Edwards, but I think you have to run a national campaign, and I think that’s what we’ve shown tonight,” the four-term Massachusetts senator said. “You can’t cherry-pick the presidency.”
With Iowa and New Hampshire already in his pocket, Kerry boasts a record of 7-2 in primary season contests. He won three states with more than 50 percent of the vote Tuesday, and ran strong in all seven contests, especially among voters favoring a candidate with experience or someone who can beat President Bush. Still, the undisputed front-runner missed a chance to put two major rivals away.
It was a night of blown opportunities all around. Edwards narrowly lost to Clark in Oklahoma, missing a chance to show his presidential mettle outside the South and emerge as Kerry’s chief rival.
Clark did better than expected – one victory and at least two second-place finishes – but it came at a heavy price. He spent $11 million on TV ads in hopes of standing alone against Kerry.
Of the 269 pledged delegates at stake Tuesday night, an AP analysis showed Kerry winning 112, Edwards 59, Clark 44, Dean four and Al Sharpton one, with 49 yet to be allocated. Kerry won the two most delegate-rich states, Missouri and Arizona, while Clark and Edwards divided the next two biggest prizes.
Tuesday’s results pushed Kerry just over 200 delegates out of 2,162 needed for the nomination, including the superdelegates of lawmakers and party traditionalists. Dean trailed by nearly 90, Edwards by more than 100.
Democrats award delegates based on a candidates’ showing in congressional districts, giving Kerry’s rivals a chance to grab a few delegates even in contests they lost.
In nearly every region of the nation, the most diverse group of Democrats yet to cast votes this primary season said they had a singular priority: Defeat Bush.
“I don’t care who wins” the Democratic primary, said Judy Donovan of Tucson, Ariz. “I’d get my dog to run. I’m not kidding. I would get Mickey Mouse in there. Anybody but Bush.”
In state after state, exit polls showed Kerry dominated among voters who want a candidate with experience or who could beat Bush.
Edwards had said he must win South Carolina, and he did by dominating among voters who said they most value a candidate who cares about people like them.
“It’s very easy to lay out the map to get us to the nomination,” Edwards told the AP, drawing a line from Michigan on Saturday to Virginia and Tennessee next Tuesday.
To the roar of his South Carolina supporters, Edwards declared, “The politics of lifting people up beats the politics of tearing people down.”
Clark declared victory from Oklahoma, standing before a red-white-and-blue banner and a crowd of cheering supporters. Calling himself “an old soldier from Arkansas,” the political novice said he was excited by “the first election that I ever won.”
Dean saved his money for a last stand in Wisconsin on Feb. 17, a long-shot strategy that some of his own advisers questioned.
“We’re going to have a tough night,” Dean told supporters as he promised to keep “going and going and going and going and going – just like the Energizer bunny.”
Said Steve Murphy, who ran Rep. Dick Gephardt’s campaign: “Howard Dean is done.” The list of ex-candidates grows: Florida Sen. Bob Graham dropped out first, then Carol Moseley Braun, Gephardt and Lieberman.
“Today the voters have rendered their verdict and I accept it,” Lieberman said.
Kerry, who just six weeks ago was written off as a candidate, reshaped the race with victories in Iowa and New Hampshire while Dean’s candidacy cratered. “I’ll keep working and fighting until I win the nomination, and then I’ll keep working and fighting until I beat George Bush,” he told the AP.
Kerry is racking up endorsements as he tries to unite the party behind his front-running candidacy. To that end, the 1.2 million-member American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second largest teachers’ union, planned to back Kerry on Wednesday, a senior union official said on condition of anonymity.