FAIRFAX, Va. -- Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts swept the Virginia and Tennessee primaries last night, trouncing his Southern-bred rivals so decisively that retired General Wesley K. Clark, once a formidable challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination, decided to quit the race.
Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, the only other candidate to have won a primary this year, came in a distant second in both states yesterday -- a disappointing return for a candidate who once banked his campaign on his appeal in the South. But the results were worse for Clark, who lost by more than 40 points in Virginia and finished third in Tennessee, a state where he campaigned hard for the past week. Clark aides said the Kerry campaign had built too much momentum to be stopped at this late stage, despite their best efforts, leaving no choice but to drop out. "The biggest reason is the tremendous momentum that Senator Kerry built coming out of the Iowa and the New Hampshire races," said Clark spokesman Matt Bennett. "The mountain got too steep to climb."
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who skipped yesterday's contests to focus on others yet to come, registered in single digits to continue his losing streak. The outcome made Kerry all but unstoppable, proving him viable in every region, especially, according to exit polls, among Democrats anxious to find a candidate who can beat President Bush nine months from now. "Americans are voting for change, East and West, North -- and now, in the South," Kerry said in his victory speech here last night. "Together across the South you have shown the mainstream values that we share -- fairness, love of country, a belief in hope and hard work -- are more important than boundaries or birthplace. And I thank you for that."
The entire field now looks to the Wisconsin contest on Feb. 17 as a decisive measure of who can continue; yesterday, Dean suggested it could be decisive for his campaign, a point he has wavered on in recent days. "If I don't win, then maybe I won't be president. We'll find out," Dean said. Dean also knocked Kerry's triumph once the results were in last night. "This is not a prescription for change," Dean said on CNN, repeating charges that Kerry is beholden to special interests.
Edwards, meanwhile, looked ahead to potential victories in days to come. "We're going to have a campaign and an election, not a coronation," Edwards said.
But increasingly, the race appears to be Kerry's to lose. And more so than ever, Kerry talked past the other Democrats yesterday to present himself as the presumptive nominee and take on Bush directly. As of today, Kerry can boast victories in every region of the country.
"From the heartland to both coasts, the wreckage of the Bush economy can be seen all around us," Kerry said in his victory speech. "People are being told there is a turnaround, that things are better; they don't see it in their own lives, in their jobs, their wages. For more than three years this administration has failed to tell the truth about the economy of this country."
Kerry's optimism about the race has been tempered in recent days by his abiding frustration over one ongoing Republican attack point: that he has raised more money from individual lobbyists over the last 15 years than any other US senator.
According to campaign sources, Kerry has repeatedly told aides that he needs a stronger argument to knock down the issue, and expressed frustration that the media has not accepted his argument that he has not taken any money from political action committees. Yesterday, Kerry grew exasperated when asked about Republican attacks calling him hypocritical for criticizing special interests on the stump while having accepted more than $600,000 in donations over the 15-year period from lobbyists.
"I have lived voluntarily by a tougher standard than almost any other senator because I have never been elected -- in any of my races -- taking any special interest political action money," Kerry said. "The only people who have contributed to me in my races are individual Americans. I don't know how to reduce it to a better common denominator in America."
Over the last week, Kerry has focused on drawing contrasts between his proposals and Bush's record in office, such as his criticism yesterday that the White House has not done more to stop companies from outsourcing jobs to overseas locations. Campaign strategy has also shifted to building support in swing states such as Arizona, Missouri, and Tennessee that Bush won in 2000. Kerry has also sought to win over labor unions that have supported Dean and a former rival in the race, Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who endorsed Kerry.
Still, despite winning 12 out of the 14 contests thus far, Kerry remained reluctant to declare himself the nominee. He shrugged off a question yesterday about whether last night's results should winnow the Democratic field further. "There's a process. I respect each state's right to make its decision, and I respect each candidate's right to make their decision," Kerry said in Virginia.
Indeed, Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, whose best showing has been a distant third place in Maine, repeated his vow not to quit until he wins.
"We are like the Seabiscuit of the 2004 election," Kucinich said while campaigning yesterday, referring to the racehorse whose unlikely story of victory became the basis for a hit movie last year.
Voters seemed to think otherwise, putting Kucinich only in the single digits in both Tennessee and Virginia.
In Nashville, Drue Hackney, a Red Cross worker, said she would vote for Kerry. "I can see him as a president more than any of the others," Hackney, 25, said.
Brian Warford, 41, general manager at an electronics store, said his top concern is finding someone who can beat Bush -- a refrain echoed in every primary state so far. But for him, that meant picking Edwards, because of his "natural charm and charisma."
"He doesn't appear to be something he's not," Warford said of Edwards. "I get the sense that Kerry's presentation is a little bit forced."
If anything, Kerry has appeared exhausted in recent days, battling a persistent cold and a hacking cough. During his daily news conferences with reporters and at some of his events, there has been less energy in his voice. After campaigning almost nonstop through December and January, he has taken one day off this month, and plans to spend today and at least part of tomorrow at home resting and telephoning donors and political allies.