WASHINGTON - Catching John Kerry just got a lot tougher.
The Massachusetts senator made good on his claim to be a national candidate with a near-sweep in yesterday's seven-state presidential test. Even in the states he lost, he ran well.
If anyone overtakes him, it will likely be either Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, winner of the year's first southern primary, in South Carolina, or retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who kept his hopes alive by edging out Edwards in Oklahoma.
Kerry's multi-state triumph was broad and deep, and reflected the belief of many Democrats that he is their party's best hope for defeating President Bush in November, according to a survey of voters leaving polling places in primary states.
Though he will continue trying to tone down expectations - Kerry said last night he'd "take nothing for granted" - that might become increasingly difficult.
The exit polls showed him gaining support from all elements of the Democratic coalition - including seniors, minorities and union members - as he carried a diverse group of states: Delaware, Missouri, Arizona, North Dakota and New Mexico.
"It means there's a 70-80 percent chance or better that he's the nominee of the party," said Greg Schneiders, a Democratic campaign veteran not aligned with any of the candidates
"If Kerry had managed to get all seven, it was over. If he got six of the seven convincingly, it was probably close to over," said Schneiders. "Now Edwards, at least, has good reason to go on. And Clark will think that he should, too."
Clark has yet to demonstrate as much strength as Edwards. In spite of making just a single, brief stop in Oklahoma during the final week of campaigning, the senator nearly won the Sooner primary, in perhaps the day's biggest surprise.
Edwards used his moment in the national spotlight, a victory speech to supporters in Columbia, S.C., last night, to direct a populist message straight at the heart of the activist Democratic base.
A mill worker's son who grew rich as a plaintiffs' attorney, Edwards contrasted himself, by implication, with Bush, and Kerry, both products of wealthy families. The senator said he was someone who "actually understands the problems of working people" and promised to re-unite a nation split into "two Americas," one for the affluent and the other for everyone else.
Edwards' victory in South Carolina and Clark's in Oklahoma could make it even more difficult for other candidates to remain competitive as the campaign heads into five states and the District of Columbia over the next week. One of them, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who at one time led in the national polls, bowed to reality and ended his campaign last night.
The inability of the party's 2000 vice presidential candidate to scratch out a victory in any of the first nine states demonstrated, once again, the difficulty a moderate-to-conservative Democrat faces in appealing to the left-of-center voters who play a disproportionate role in the primaries.
The Rev. Al Sharpton showed he would not be a factor in the Democratic contest. He failed to siphon many black votes away from the leading white candidates in South Carolina, where African-Americans cast about two of every five votes.
Sharpton skipped earlier contests and concentrated money and significant personal campaign time on South Carolina, where he urged black voters to make him their voice at the Democratic convention this summer. But exit polls showed him with fewer than one in five black votes, and he finished far back in third place, failing to gain enough votes to win convention delegates.
Yesterday's balloting dealt another severe blow to Howard Dean. The former Vermont governor, the presumed front-runner just over two weeks ago, did not even win the 15 percent minimum needed to receive delegates in most states.
Dean's campaign sought to forestall any rush to make Kerry the presumptive nominee when only about 12 percent of the convention delegates have been chosen. Dean's longshot strategy now hinges on a collapse by Kerry similar to the one that Dean suffered last month.
"It's way too early for a coronation of the candidate who has taken in more special interest money than any other candidate," said Dean campaign manager Roy Neel in a statement issued before the polls closed.
But if anyone benefits from a Kerry stumble, it would likely be Edwards, though Clark might also lay claim to consideration from voters seeking an alternative to the front-runner.
Clark spent heavily in most of yesterday's contests. He put more than $1 million into South Carolina, where he attempted to appeal to those who, like him, are military veterans and southerners. However, he wound up a distant fourth, with only about 7 percent of the vote.
Clark fared better in Arizona and New Mexico, where he finished second. But in Missouri, the state with the most delegates at stake, Edwards ran second, with 25 percent of the vote. Clark got 4 percent.
Edwards faces significant challenges, though, in attempting to catch Kerry. Edwards' South Carolina victory was hard-won, both physically and financially.
The senator finished the contest with a raw voice and a campaign that reportedly is almost broke. He will have to divide his time between frantic fund-raising and campaign stops in upcoming states, which pose their own series of tests.
"Edwards continues to impress me. The more he gets known, the stronger he gets," said former Rep. Tony Coelho, who was an Al Gore campaign manager in the 2000 presidential race.
Edwards is hoping to capitalize on his momentum by picking up delegates Saturday in Michigan, the first big industrial state. He also will campaign hard in the two states that will hold primaries Tuesday, Tennessee and Virginia, both of which adjoin his home state of North Carolina but might not be as friendly as their proximity might imply.
Kerry is favored in the vote-rich, moderate-to-liberal suburbs outside Washington, D.C., and among African-Americans in southside Virginia, while Edwards' chances should be better in lightly populated rural areas. Clark also has spent heavily in Tennessee and is airing ads in Virginia, making him a potential threat in both states.
If Edwards manages to make progress as a Kerry alternative in those tests over the next seven days, he'll have to take on the Massachusetts senator in the Feb. 17 Wisconsin primary. Kerry will likely go all-out in the Badger State, where Dean plans a last-ditch try to keep his candidacy alive.
The Wisconsin results will likely determine whether the campaign moves on to the big round of primaries two weeks after that on March 2, "Super Tuesday," the biggest Election Day of the primary season. On that day, contests will be held from coast to coast, in California, New York, Ohio, Maryland and other states.
Anita Dunn, a top strategist in former Sen. Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign, said Kerry's "very impressive night" underscored the fact that the other candidates "all are fighting to be the single alternative candidate to John Kerry."
Edwards and Clark "have reason to be happy," she said, but it would be a mistake to declare Dean finished, though he had another bad night.
"The history of Democratic primaries shows that when candidates decide they are going to stay in the process for a while, unpredictable things happen," said Dunn. "If there's been one lesson so far about the caucuses and primaries, it's been to caution those who have been writing off candidates too early."