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Kerry, Edwards seek edge in Wis. with focus on jobs

WAUSAU, Wis. -- As Wisconsin voters prepared for their presidential primary today, rivals John F. Kerry and John Edwards vied for support from workers, the unemployed, and those worried about jobs going overseas, even making separate visits to this mill town in what increasingly appears to be the start of a two-man contest for the Democratic nomination.

Speaking to 300 people at Northcentral Technical College here yesterday, Kerry said President Bush was overseeing the loss of two US jobs per minute and adding $1 billion to the deficit each day. Kerry also suggested that Bush was more comfortable with "photo opportunity" politics like his visit to the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sunday than tackling thorny issues like job creation.

"Let me tell you something: We don't need a president who just says, `Gentlemen, start your engines,' " Kerry said. "We need a president who says, `America, let's start our economy and put people back to work.' "

Howard Dean, who is seeking renewal from a Wisconsin win, saw his anti-Washington message all but drowned out yesterday by questions about the future of his candidacy. His campaign chairman, Steve Grossman, left the Dean camp yesterday, according to Dean, after saying he would sign up with Kerry if Dean lost today. Kerry said yesterday that he had not heard from anyone in the Dean camp, but would "welcome" the support. Several political analysts and voters in Wisconsin say they expect Dean to bow out if Kerry trounces him as expected today.

"It's hard to see how anyone will beat Kerry in Wisconsin right now," said Jean Schuster, a 58-year-old student who cut class at the Wausau vocational college to hear Kerry. "I started out with Dean, but he didn't show the professionalism we need to project on the international scene. Edwards is a nice man. But Kerry has been the winner all along."

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who is Kerry's campaign cochair and attended a rally in Green Bay with him that drew 1,500 people, said in an interview with the Globe that Kerry is facing tough challenges from both Edwards and the Republicans. Still, Kennedy said, he is confident the front-runner will persevere.

Kennedy said he believed Kerry's advisers should do more to counter GOP attacks on the $640,000 in lobbyist donations that Kerry received over the last 15 years, though Kennedy said he did not think the accusations would stick. He also predicted that after a tough two-man race, Kerry would win more delegates than Edwards to clinch the party's nomination.

"I think there's a coming together now in the party and in states that recognize that this time is John Kerry's," Kennedy said.

At the same time, Kennedy -- who is close to Edwards as well as Kerry -- said he had not sent signals encouraging the North Carolina senator to bow out in favor of Kerry. "I don't think the time has come for him to do that," Kennedy said of Edwards, who picked up a key endorsement yesterday from the state's largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It doesn't seem like the interest in Edwards has faded."

The Kerry camp is increasingly wary of Edwards, who brought his message of recovering manufacturing jobs to Wausau as well as Milwaukee, Appleton, and Eau Claire, particularly after he took a few new shots at Kerry at a televised candidates' forum Sunday.

On his campaign plane yesterday, Kerry noted three times that he had a "nice conversation" at the debate with Dean, but that he and Edwards chatted "briefly."

During his stop at the college here, Kerry made a similar comment to one Edwards offered at the debate the night before about job losses, saying he did not want to make false promises simply to help himself get elected.

"I'm not going to come here and be one of those phony candidates who stands in front of you and promises you things I can't deliver," Kerry said. "I'm not going to tell you you can stop every single job from going overseas. But here's what you can do. You can stop being so stupid that you actually reward the companies with a tax benefit that do it."

Kerry also echoed a bit of the "Massachusetts Miracle" theme of Michael S. Dukakis's presidential campaign in 1988, touting old mill towns such as Lowell and Lawrence as examples of economic revival.

"You go into those mill buildings in Massachusetts today and you'll find technology companies, cottage industries, health device companies, all the other kinds of things that move to a higher-pay, more modern kind of economy," Kerry said. "That's the transition [that] leadership needs to be ahead of the curve on."

His comment on the Bay State economy drew immediate fire from the state Republican Party, which remarked on Kerry's role as Dukakis's lieutenant governor in 1982-84.

"It was Kerry-Dukakis who chased jobs away from Massachusetts, and it was 13 years of Republican governors that helped re-create those jobs and bring the state back," said Dominick Ianno, the party's executive director.

Later, Kerry was asked whether he had been thinking about being the nominee in his hometown. "In the last weeks, it has dawned on me that it would be fun. I haven't really allowed myself the luxury of thinking about it, just because we have been working so intensely,"

he said. Also yesterday, a young woman who had been at the center of recent rumors about Kerry issued a statement denying that she and the senator had once been involved. Kerry had previously denied the rumors categorically.

"It seems that efforts to peddle these lies continue, so I feel compelled to address them. I have never had a relationship with Senator Kerry, and the rumors in the press are completely false," she said. The woman's father -- who had made derogatory statements to British tabloids about Kerry -- also released a statement yesterday saying that they admired the senator's handling of the matter and planned to vote for him.

Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter e-mailed a brief comment yesterday when asked for a reaction to the family's statement and whether anyone associated with Kerry had spoken to the family members or played a role in preparing the statements.

"This campaign is going to stay focused on the issues that matter to Americans, like how to get our economy back on track and make our nation more secure, and the press should do the same," Cutter said.

Meanwhile, a Boston College student newspaper criticized Kerry yesterday for not noting on his campaign website biography that he graduated from BC Law School. A campaign spokesperson for Kerry told the BC newspaper that the law degree would be added.

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com.

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