WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Kerry marched closer to the Democratic nomination for president, winning five of seven state contests yesterday, though Sen. John Edwards captured the key Southern state of South Carolina and emerged as perhaps the leading threat to Kerry in a race that is clearly not over.
In Oklahoma, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark eked out a razor-thin victory over Edwards, with Kerry finishing third.
The result gave a much-needed boost to Clark, who had pinned his hopes for his first win on the state that borders his home state of Arkansas.
Still, Kerry's victories -- spanning the nation from Delaware to Missouri and North Dakota, to Arizona and New Mexico, with their sizable Hispanic populations -- served as the first tangible sign of the Massachusetts senator's national appeal. He was the only candidate who managed to win last night in a region outside his own.
Kerry played down Edwards' success in South Carolina, saying the North Carolina senator had heavily outspent him and campaigned far longer.
"I am running a national campaign," Kerry said, suggesting that Edwards was not.
"For the second time in a few days, a New England patriot has won on the road," Kerry told exuberant supporters in Seattle, where the front-runner is looking ahead to Washington state's primary on Saturday.
He added: "We will take nothing for granted, and we will compete everywhere. And in November, with your help, we will defeat George W. Bush."
Edwards won handily in South Carolina, where he went hoarse campaigning relentlessly in recent days, and where he said he had to finish at the top to remain a viable candidate. He called the result in his home state of South Carolina "a great political victory" and told a crowd of supporters, "Together we will change America."
He told CNN that he expects the Democratic race to begin focusing on Kerry and himself.
"South Carolina was a great test for winning in the South and winning rural voters," Edwards said.
Though Edwards was edged out by Clark in Oklahoma, his close second-place finish suggested that he can command support outside his native South.
The night dealt another setback to Howard Dean, who shook up his staff days ago in hopes of reversing his campaign's free fall. The former Vermont governor finished no better than third in any of the seven states contested yesterday, though he vowed to battle on in states such as Michigan and Washington state, where primaries will be held Saturday, and in Wisconsin, a week later.
For days, Dean has been looking ahead to those contests, all but conceding the seven held yesterday. His campaign began playing down the results from last night even before the polls closed.
"It looks like we're going to have a tough night," Dean told supporters at a rally in Tacoma, Wash. "We're going to pick up some delegates tonight, and it is all about who gets the most delegates in Boston in July, and it's going to be us."
The former governor renewed his criticism that rivals, including Kerry and Edwards, voted to authorize war in Iraq and supported President Bush's now heavily criticized legislation to reform public schools.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut ended his bid for the presidency after weak finishes across the board, including in Delaware, where he had held hopes of winning. Lieberman, who four years ago was paired with Al Gore on a national ticket that won the popular vote in the general election, tried to remain upbeat as he addressed supporters in Arlington, Va.
"I offered a mainstream voice," Lieberman said. "And I still believe that is the right choice and the winning choice for our party and for our country."
Lieberman said he will support the eventual Democratic nominee and "do whatever I can to deny George Bush a second term."
Clark had targeted Oklahoma, hoping his moderate message would play well with more socially conservative Democrats. His aides had hoped initially that he could find similar success in Missouri, which borders his home state of Arkansas. Clark will now turn his attention to Tennessee, beginning a bus tour in another state close to his own.
Celebrating his victory in Oklahoma last night, Clark, who spent a whopping $11 million on TV ads in the state to try to pull out a win, told supporters: "We've been here every day of the last week." He thanked them for handing him "the first election that I've ever won."
As expected, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio rounded out the pack with single-digit finishes everywhere. Sharpton, though, did attract some support in pockets of South Carolina, running in third place in the state according to early returns.
Any delegates won by Sharpton would mark a symbolic victory for his never-say-die campaign. Still, he captured only about one in five black voters in the state.
With his handful of victories yesterday, Kerry showed that he was a candidate with accelerating momentum. Just weeks ago, Kerry's campaign had seemed in disarray, and Dean was flying high as the early front-runner. Fortunes changed with lightning speed after Kerry won stunning victories in Iowa and then New Hampshire. Yesterday, he picked up a trove of delegates, including the largest prize of the night, Missouri, which had 74 delegates at stake.
While Kerry's successes in Iowa and New Hampshire were significant, his slate of victories yesterday showed that he can win in states with disparate cultures and demographics. His aides played up Missouri as a bellwether of the mood of the country. In every general election but one since 1904, Missourians have voted for the man the rest of the country chose as president.
Kerry might have benefited in Missouri in large part from his momentum after Iowa and New Hampshire. None of the candidates had spent much time campaigning to challenge the front-runner in Missouri. Some Missourians had expressed wariness about Kerry and his patrician New England roots but said they would back him as the best hope to defeat Bush in November.
Kerry has also been trying to burnish his image as a candidate who could challenge the president on foreign policy and be the most credible critic of the war in Iraq. He has highlighted his service in the Vietnam War and has appeared at rallies with veterans who served alongside him.
Missouri had long been considered an easy victory for its favorite son, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, until he dropped out of the presidential race after a weak showing in Iowa. Few of the candidates jumped in during the final push to make a splash in Missouri, in large part because television advertising is expensive in the state.
Edwards had been banking on success in South Carolina to show that the South is his turf, telling voters at each stop that he is the only candidate who could challenge Bush in the South -- "by tawlk-ing like this," Edwards would say, stop after stop, in an exaggerated drawl.
South Carolina was considered the first place where candidates would show whether they could fare well in the South and in a state with a large black population.
In 2000, Bush won there over Arizona Sen. John McCain, who had beaten Bush in New Hampshire. Bush slowed McCain's momentum in South Carolina and within a few weeks, after losing only a couple of more states to McCain, was cruising to his party's nomination.
By the end of last night, Kerry was expected to have nearly 200 delegates in his camp, out of 2,162 needed for his party's nomination.
Even as voters were casting ballots, Dean's campaign was downplaying the importance of yesterday's outcome. Dean's campaign manager, Roy Neel, said that as of the close of last night, "only 10 percent of the delegates for the Democratic nomination will be chosen. The voices of millions of Americans in states like Wisconsin, Washington, California, New York and Florida have yet to be heard."
Many voters interviewed on the campaign trail said that electability, above all else, was their principal factor in choosing a candidate, expressing a strong desire to end Bush's presidency.
Tim Lillis, a Democratic committeeman in Kansas City, called Kerry "polished" and said that he would be able to carry states such as Missouri in the general election, as President Bill Clinton did twice but Gore did not.
"People out here got in touch with the folksy feeling Clinton had," Lillis said at a Kerry rally a few days ago. "Gore just didn't come across as folksy. But Kerry, he's been rolling up the shirtsleeves and wearing jeans."
A CNN/USA Today poll released yesterday could bolster Kerry's claim that he is the most electable candidate in the field. In a hypothetical matchup against Bush, 53 percent of respondents said they would vote for Kerry; 46 percent backed Bush.
In an Edwards-Bush matchup, 49 percent said they would back Edwards, while 48 percent chose Bush -- a statistical dead heat.