Voters aren't quite ready to pull the plug on the Democratic primary season. But they may be getting close.
In contests Tuesday in seven states, they handed Senator John Kerry five wins, cementing the man from Massachusetts' status as front-runner. But voters also boosted the campaigns of Senator John Edwards of North Carolina and retired General Wesley Clark of Arkansas. Each posted wins in states in their respective backyards and will live to fight another day.
In the wake of Tuesday's primaries, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut's quest for the presidency ended; he pulled out of the race Tuesday night after failing to make much of an impact anywhere.
Kerry was the day's biggest winner by far. He scored decisive victories in Arizona, North Dakota, Delaware, New Mexico and Missouri. More importantly, he captured the most delegates and now leads former governor Howard Dean of Vermont in that race 255 to 156 overall, according to a CBS News tally. To capture the nomination, a Democrat needs the backing of 2,161 party delegates.
"For the second time in a few days, a New England Patriot has won on the road," a smiling Kerry told supporters gathered in Washington state. A longtime New England football fan, Kerry took time off this past Sunday night to watch the Patriots defeat the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl.
After zooming to the front of the pack with a surprise win in Iowa last month, Kerry has sought to elevate his candidacy above those of his Democratic rivals. Mostly, he has taken aim at the current White House occupant, President George W. Bush. He stuck to that strategy Tuesday night.
"George Bush, who promised to be a uniter, has in fact become the great divider," he said. "We will resume the great march of our history, to a country where everyone can hope and strive and move ahead, no matter who you are or no matter what the color of your skin."
In the South Carolina primary, Edwards cruised to an easy 15-point win over Kerry, taking home 45 percent of the vote. The North Carolinian had staked his candidacy's survival on winning the Palmetto State and his boy-next-door status clearly helped him there. Edwards was also born in South Carolina, a fact he mentioned repeatedly in the last week.
Edwards has sought to portray himself as the most optimistic voice in the race. On Tuesday night, he again avoided personal attacks on his rivals.
"Tonight you said that the politics of lifting people up beats the politics of tearing people down," he told supporters in South Carolina.
Edwards has repeatedly bragged of being the only candidate who can win below the Mason-Dixon line this fall. No Democrat has won the White House without winning at least five Southern states in the general election, he has said. Edwards hopes to secure wins in Virginia and Tennessee, which vote next Tuesday, then take his campaign north to make a stand somewhere outside his home region.
In Oklahoma, Wesley Clark scratched out a razor-thin 1,300-vote victory over Edwards. Had he failed to win Oklahoma, which borders his native Arkansas, raising funds for his campaign would have become virtually impossible.
Ironically, Kerry may ultimately be helped by Clark's survival. An Edwards win in Oklahoma would have set up a two-man Dixie showdown between him and Kerry next week. Instead, Clark could now steal votes that would have gone to Edwards in Tennessee and Virginia. That could open the door for Kerry to pull off an upset win in either state.
Still, voters rejected the chance to hand Kerry the nomination on a silver platter Tuesday. A clean sweep would probably have let him knock Edwards and Clark out of the race immediately. That would have left only Dean standing between Kerry and the chance to take on Bush this fall.
Dean skipped competing in the seven states that voted Tuesday. Instead, he is focusing on upcoming contests in Michigan and Washington, both of which vote on Saturday, and Maine, which votes Sunday. His campaign is reportedly running so low on cash that it has not run television commercials in any of those states, however.
Signs now point to a battle royale in the Wisconsin primary on February 17. All, or at least most of the candidates still in the race will need to compete there to remain viable.
For Lieberman, Tuesday's results convinced him to call it quits. After finishing a disappointing fifth in last week's New Hampshire primary, advisors urged him to drop out of the race. Instead, he chose to focus on winning tiny Delaware. Kerry ultimately took the state by a giant margin, carrying 50 percent of the vote to Lieberman's 11 percent.
Lieberman, who served as Al Gore's running mate in 2000, presented himself as the moderate alternative in the race. He was the only candidate to unequivocally support the war in Iraq. He has long been a vocal critic of what he describes as violent and sexually explicit content in movies, television and pop music.
"I have decided tonight to end my quest for the presidency of the United States of America," he told supporters gathered at a hotel ballroom just outside Washington, D.C.
"Am I disappointed? Naturally. But am I proud of what we stood for in this campaign? You bet I am."
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