WASHINGTON - John Kerry's feat of winning five of seven primary and caucus contests on a single day may say more about the deep desire of Democratic voters around the country to beat President Bush in November than anything else.
With the Massachusetts senator's candidacy marked by no single distinguishing policy issue, it appears that his experience in war and peace has earned him his string of victories on grounds he is the most electable of the Democratic pack.
In this judgment, he can probably thank the erratic performance of former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont in the Iowa caucuses and thereafter. Dr. Dean's overheated and angry attacks not only on Mr. Bush but also on his Democratic rivals left many voters with the impression that he is too hot to handle.
What seemed until only a few weeks ago to be a Dean steamroller headed for early nomination found itself shockingly derailed, creating an opening for an alternative in a relatively unimpressive field. Mr. Kerry, the Vietnam War hero playing on his military rM-isumM-i with new boldness, swiftly filled the vacuum.
In doing so, he finally escaped the prison of his ambiguous position on the Iraq invasion, which had seemed to anesthetize his campaign. His contrast with a president who survived the Vietnam War in the shelter of the Air National Guard has helped put teeth in Mr. Kerry's oratory and feed the argument of his electability.
Mr. Kerry also can thank his emerging chief rival, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, for cooling off the intraparty rhetoric from candidates other than Dr. Dean by demonstrating the appeal to voters of hewing to the high road. Ever since Mr. Edwards' surprise second-place finish in Iowa, the decibel level on the campaign trail has been notably lower.
This latter fact may also reflect a general Democratic desire to get past the delegate-selection period with a minimum of division, the better to achieve a united front afterward in the prime party objective of getting Mr. Bush out of the White House.
While Mr. Kerry batted 5-for-7 Tuesday to further fuel his momentum, which clearly was a factor in his success, the victories of Mr. Edwards in the South Carolina primary and of retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark of Arkansas in Oklahoma denied Mr. Kerry the knockout blows that would have made his day complete.
But those two victories by Southern candidates in their home regions pale as tests of electability in comparison to Mr. Kerry's successes in the central and southwest states, as well as in his native New England.
Notably, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Clark will be focusing on the South again in the Feb. 10 primaries in Tennessee and Virginia, for a combined 151 delegates, instead of the contests Saturday in Michigan and Washington state, where Mr. Kerry is going after a combined prize of 204 delegates in "foreign" fields.
The subplot in all this is whether Mr. Edwards or Mr. Clark will emerge as the last man standing against Mr. Kerry or whether Dr. Dean somehow can resurrect himself down the road in the Wisconsin primary Feb. 17. Dr. Dean is pointing to Wisconsin to buy a ticket into the Super Tuesday showdown March 2, in which 13 states, including California, New York, Ohio and Maryland, are to vote.
But the way the voters are jumping aboard the Kerry bandwagon, the race may well not get that far. And even if it does, the question is whether any of the surviving challengers can raise the carfare to get there.
Before Dr. Dean's implosion, his much-touted plan was to run a 50-state strategy, taxing the resources of the other candidates who would be forced by money limitations to pick their spots. It was to be the same strategy that enabled Jimmy Carter in 1976 to win one or more states on every primary day, accumulating delegates while his opponents struggled to slow down his march to the nomination.
Now, ironically, it is the serendipitous Mr. Kerry, blessed by early success and Dr. Dean's early failure, who is running a 50-state strategy. In doing so, he can demonstrate his strength as a truly national candidate, while also sapping the money and energy of the remaining field against him.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column generally appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Columnist Linda Chavez will return Feb. 12.