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Kerry captures 5 states; S.C. picks Edwards

Clark ekes out victory in Okla.; Lieberman quits

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Front-runner John F. Kerry swept five primary contests yesterday but faced his first credible challenge as Senator John Edwards, on the strength of his appeal to conservative and rural Democrats, landed a double-digit victory in South Carolina.

 

In another conservative-leaning state, Oklahoma, retired General Wesley K. Clark claimed victory by a narrow margin over Edwards, with Kerry in third place. The divided results, though overwhelmingly positive for Kerry, set the stage for a prolonged race for the nomination divided along regional and cultural lines -- pitting the Massachusetts senator against two Southerners in a race driven by the search for a nationally popular candidate.

As disappointing returns rolled in for Connecticut Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, the former vice presidential contender quit the contest, calling the decision "difficult but realistic." Howard Dean, on the other hand, pledged to "keep going and going and going and going and going, just like the Energizer Bunny," despite his poor showing.

Racking up victories across three time zones and, for the first time, among significant blocs of minorities, Kerry landed his most impressive win in Missouri, a diverse pocket of the Midwest that carries a sizable 74 delegates. With other triumphs in Delaware, North Dakota, New Mexico, and Arizona, Kerry firmly cemented his grip on first place -- and won the right to declare himself a national candidate. "You have to run a national campaign, and I think that's what we've shown tonight," Kerry said, clearly ebullient as he arrived in Washington to campaign for the caucuses there on Saturday.

The night was just as momentous for Edwards, who emerged as the only contender proven able to decisively outpace Kerry. His unexpectedly wide lead over Kerry in South Carolina -- coupled with his and Clark's strong showing in Oklahoma -- raised questions about Kerry's viability in the critical Southern states that can determine a general election.

Edwards, while acknowledging that his South Carolina victory was both expected and necessary given that he lives in North Carolina, declared that his positive appeal to voters "will work everywhere in the country." In his victory speech, he told the raucous crowd that 35 million Americans live in poverty, and that "they are heroes in our America. They are the reason I am running for president of the United States."

The Rev. Al Sharpton and Representative Dennis J. Kucinich barely registered at the polls, a disappointment especially for Sharpton after he concentrated his efforts on winning black votes in South Carolina. Lieberman was the only one, however, to take the defeats as a sign he should get out.

"The judgment of the voters is now clear," Lieberman said, congratulating Kerry and Edwards. "Am I proud of what we stood for in this campaign? You bet I am," he said.

An analysis of the poll results showed overwhelmingly good news for Kerry: he appealed to both men and women, rich and poor, liberals and moderates of every age. In Arizona, Kerry won approximately half the Hispanic vote, with one-fourth voting for Clark.

In South Carolina, with a high-profile endorsement by the state's most prominent African-American official, Representative Jim Clyburn, Kerry split the black vote with Edwards. Edwards received his most solid support from whites, older voters, people who are less-educated and self-described moderates and conservatives -- as well as people who found they could relate to his Southern background.

Kerry won by wide margins in Missouri, Arizona, Delaware, and North Dakota, an impressive sweep that he said left him stunned. And he signaled his intent to ride that momentum into the next rounds of elections, dismissing his rivals' victories as isolated.

"I compliment John Edwards," Kerry said. But, he added, "You can't cherry-pick the presidency."

Having won seven out of nine contests, Kerry has the most delegates -- at least 200 out of the needed 2,162. But with the biggest prizes yet to come, Kerry is far from locking down the nomination; he lost Oklahoma and South Carolina despite his momentum from Iowa and New Hampshire, missing a chance to eliminate his competition entirely.

At the same time, momentum is certain to shift toward Edwards and Clark at least somewhat heading into the next three races this weekend. Their dual wins could benefit Kerry, pitting them against each other in Virginia and Tennessee, which hold elections Tuesday.

Kerry had hoped to win at least six of the seven states in a decisive sweep, establishing himself as the presumptive nominee and proving that he would be viable against President Bush even in the more conservative South -- an especially important trait in a primary focused almost exclusively on "electability." Kerry has drawn criticism for not courting the South more aggressively, and for declaring that a Democrat does not need the South to win a general election. While true, that sentiment has infuriated Democrats who do not want to cede the region entirely to the GOP, and who note that no Democrat has won the presidency without Southern votes in decades.

Clark, raised in Arkansas, also ran on his Southern background, as well as his military credentials. But in a race that already had another Southerner in Edwards as well as a veteran in Kerry, neither trait distinguished Clark from the pack, a problem made worse by his occasional missteps and lack of experience in politics.

According to early exit polls, the economy topped the list of concerns for voters in the five states that held primaries. There was also surprisingly high turnout by members of the military and their families -- two out of three in South Carolina, and even a higher percentage in Oklahoma, were affiliated with the service.

From here, the race turns to Michigan and Washington on Saturday, where Dean is hoping to revive his candidacy, then the Maine caucuses on Sunday. Kerry, armed with the momentum and money that flowed after his wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, has an advantage in the first two states.

Edwards, meanwhile, would seem to have the edge in Tennessee and Virginia next week after his victory yesterday, or so his advisers hope.

That geographical divide has fueled talk of a Kerry-Edwards ticket -- on the assumption that, together, the two would have the country covered from coast to coast. But Edwards has rejected that notion, and it could become less likely if the two face a head-to-head race that becomes increasingly contentious.

In fact, a two-man race is what Edwards's advisers have been hoping for from the start. Convinced that his style and positive message will trump Kerry's military record, strategists for Edwards are focused on translating momentum from yesterday into a solid boom that demonstrates his ability to beat Bush, especially on domestic issues such as trade, education, and employment.

Dean, meanwhile, is plotting a course to the nomination relying solely on picking up delegates, a risky strategy that would require him to surge on March 2, Super Tuesday. Heading into the races yesterday, Kerry had 115 delegates, compared with 114 for Dean.

The Dean camp, still thunderstruck by his losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, remains deeply split over how to proceed -- and got no boost in morale from the outcome yesterday. Though Dean announced that he was skipping yesterday's races, and withdrew his advertising in those states, some advisers had hoped a surprisingly strong showing would jump-start his foundering campaign.

Dean insists he is staying in the race, aiming for a victory in Wisconsin on Feb 17. "Part of my persistence is wanting to win the Democratic nomination," Dean told reporters as the disappointing results trickled in. "We've had 10 percent of the Democrats cast votes so far. I don't plan to disenfranchise Florida for a second time."

Clark, after briefly enjoying his role as the attractive counterpoint to Dean, fell flat almost everywhere -- prompting his son, Wesley K. Clark Jr., to lash out at the media and other contenders. "It's really been disillusioning," said the younger Clark, who traveled with the campaign from time to time. "You go out and see the way politics really works. It is a dirty business filled with a lot of people pretending to be a lot of things they are not."

(Glen Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report and material from the Associated Press was used. Anne E. Kornblut can be reached at akornblut@globe.com.)

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