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EDWARDS VS. CLARK

Bidding to be Kerry's rival, they focus on same key states

MILWAUKEE -- John Edwards picked up a national labor union's endorsement yesterday as the North Carolina senator and retired Army General Wesley K. Clark continued their pitched battle to win over voters in states with contests that could determine the fates of their presidential bids.

Tennessee and Virginia hold their primaries on Tuesday, followed by Wisconsin seven days later. While neither candidate was competitive in yesterday's caucuses in Michigan and Washington state, both believe strong showings in these upcoming primaries could establish one of them as the main challenger to Senator John F. Kerry, the Democratic front-runner, while potentially eliminating the other.

Edwards campaigned in Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin, where he was endorsed by the 250,000-member Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE). He told a chanting, union-heavy crowd here: "When I am president, we are going to strengthen the rights of working people."

UNITE President Bruce Raynor said at a rally held at the University of Wisconsin that Edwards's humble beginnings made him the candidate who best understands the challenges facing the workers his union represents. UNITE is strong in New York and parts of the South. It has 3,000 members in Wisconsin.

"John Edwards is one of us. Like thousands of our members, he was raised in a textile mill village," Raynor said.

Clark, meanwhile, spent the day in Virginia, where he continued his attacks on Edwards and Kerry, albeit not directly by name.

"I'm not knocking either of them, but they are part of the Washington culture," Clark told about 250 enthusiastic supporters at the Jubilee recreational center in Lynchburg, Va.

Edwards yesterday saved his vitriol for President Bush, launching a rare personal attack on him in Memphis yesterday morning: "He lives a sheltered existence. You know he goes to events that are ticketed and people write big checks for him . . . he needs to be out here in the real world."

Clark has recently been attacking Edwards's past Senate votes in support of the Iraq war, the Patriot Act, and Bush's education policies, but Edwards has mostly avoided returning fire. In Memphis, however, Edwards told the crowd, "I just warn you in advance, I would expect to see over the next two days more baseless attacks."

Across the border, at Tudor's Biscuit World in Roanoke, Va., Clark continued to assert he is the only Washington outsider in the race.

"Nobody owns me," he told his supporters, standing on a chair behind the small, packed restaurant's counter. "There's no special interest money . . . that somebody's paying to influence me."

For Edwards, the last few weeks have been good to his campaign coffers. He has raised $2.6 million since his second-place Iowa caucus finish, much of it online from first-time donors, his campaign said. He netted several hundred thousand more last week at fund-raisers in Memphis and New York. On March 2, he will get about $1.3 million in federal matching funds. And the multimillionaire North Carolina trial lawyer recently donated $2,000 to his own campaign. His participation in the matching system prevents him from tapping his fortune beyond that, as Kerry has.

"We have the money and resources to maintain a long-term effort for this nomination . . . I feel very, very good about how we're doing right now," said Edwards yesterday. Asked if he thought Kerry would have a good day in Michigan and Washington yesterday, he quipped: "I expect that I'll have a good day today."

Robert Schlesinger can be reached at schlesinger@globe.com. Raja Mishra can be reached at rmishra@globe.com.

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