WASHINGTON- It's being called "Junior Tuesday," the closest thing yet to a national primary this year.
Sen. John Kerry is heavily favored to widen his lead in the Democratic presidential race today in seven state contests that span the country. From the shore of Delaware Bay to the Canadian border to the Southwest deserts, voters will be awarding more national convention delegates than any other Election Day until "Super Tuesday," four weeks from now.
By night's end, the shape of the nomination fight will be more sharply defined. Among questions likely to get answered: whether Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, has been eliminated from contention, and, more important, whether any of the other contenders emerges to challenge Kerry.
Democratic politicians say that, barring a surprise, Kerry could pull away from his rivals today. Pre-election polls show him leading in at least five states and competitive in the other two.
"If Kerry wins five out of the seven races, and comes in second in the other two, in my judgment the race will be effectively over - not because it won't continue, but because the outcome will no longer be seriously in doubt," said William Galston, a University of Maryland, College Park public policy professor who served in the Clinton White House and advises Lieberman.
A seven-state Kerry sweep, which is not out of the question, could make him all but unstoppable. "If there is going to be a time when his march toward the nomination is slowed, it would have to be now," said Gordon Fischer, the Democratic Party chairman in Iowa, where Kerry's candidacy took off two weeks from yesterday.
The tightly compressed primary calendar - only six days were allotted for campaigning between New Hampshire and today's tests - was part of an effort by Democratic leaders to force a quick end to the primary contest. That way, they theorized, the party could begin pulling together as early as possible for the general election campaign against President Bush.
Here's a state-by-state guide for watching tonight's returns, based on interviews with campaign officials, independent analysts and Democrats not aligned with any of this year's candidates (times are Eastern):
SOUTH CAROLINA (polls close 7 p.m.) - Trade and jobs are overriding issues in a state hit hard by plant closings. But picking a candidate who can win in November also is important, polls show. John Edwards, a native son who represents North Carolina in the Senate, says only a Southerner can win the White House. He also says this state is a must-win for him. Kerry formally declared his candidacy here, back when this looked like today's biggest prize. If he manages to knock out Edwards, it will be. The finish may be tight, with polls showing Kerry gaining. Final results could be late, because hand-counting 200,000 paper ballots will take some time.
DELAWARE (polls close 8 p.m.) - The First State could be the last, best chance for Lieberman, who desperately needs an upset victory here. The Connecticut senator is under increasing pressure to end his campaign if he doesn't win somewhere today. But with the optimism that has guided his fading effort for some weeks, he's announced a schedule of campaign events tomorrow in Virginia, which votes Feb. 10. The favorite here is Kerry, who has barely set foot in the state. A tight contest in Delaware, though unexpected, could signal problems for the front-runner elsewhere.
MISSOURI (polls close 8 p.m.) - Largest delegate prize of the day (74, more than Iowa and New Hampshire combined) may well be the most lopsided contest. Kerry is far out front, with Edwards a distant second. The candidates had left this state to Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of St. Louis, who ended his campaign two weeks ago (though his name is on the ballot). His pullout threw the primary wide open, but none of the contenders had enough money to mount much of a campaign. As a result, the Show Me state will largely reflect momentum, which seems to be Kerry's now.
OKLAHOMA (polls close 8 p.m.) - Wesley K. Clark is trying to hold off Kerry and Edwards in the most conservative Democratic primary state so far this year. The retired general may have outspent some, or all, of his rivals in today's contests, but this may be his only chance to snatch a first-place finish. Polls show Kerry gaining in recent days, as is Edwards, who took a brief detour from South Carolina to touch down here over the weekend. Pre-election polls showed a dead heat, with a large undecided vote, making this one of the more volatile primaries. If the Massachusetts senator parlays his Vietnam veteran background into a Sooner victory, it would be a significant notch on his belt and a sign that Clark's highly promoted political debut was a flop.
NORTH DAKOTA (polls close 8 p.m.)- The fewest delegates to win and the farthest to go to get them. By one estimate, about 10,000 Democrats will take part in today's caucuses. But Kerry, determined to prove he's a national candidate, made the trek over the weekend and drew a large crowd in Fargo. Support from fellow veterans who could help him add this to a growing list of victories.
ARIZONA and NEW MEXICO (polls close 9 p.m.) - Howard Dean has effectively conceded defeat in all of today's tests. But if he has any chance to produce a surprise, it will be in New Mexico, where his labor base is strong and many supporters cast absentee votes before his campaign went into a tailspin. These neighboring Southwestern states provide the first test of strength among Hispanic voters, the nation's fastest growing minority group and a prime target of both major parties. Kerry is positioned to sweep both states, where immigration reform plays a larger role than in other contests this year.
Even before the ballots are cast, Kerry is moving on to campaign events in Washington state, which holds caucuses Saturday. The same day, Michigan, which Dean is targeting, also will vote. A week from now, Tennessee and Virginia hold primaries, where Edwards and Clark expect to challenge the front-runner, or each other, and keep their candidacies alive.
For a candidate to remain viable, he "has to start winning primaries and being very competitive in primaries," said Al From, head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, who expects today's primaries to narrow the contest significantly.
Dean, his record $41 million fund-raising haul from last year all but gone, lacked the funds to compete today. Yesterday, the Vermonter's campaign announced that it had raised enough money to start paying the staff again and fight on at least through the Wisconsin primary two weeks from now.
Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist in New York, predicted that the Democratic race will continue until the challengers "run out of money and organization." But "if Kerry wins all seven [today], the game is pretty much over. Because money will dry up and organization will dissipate, and even the most dedicated Dean supporters will have to reconsider their actions."