WASHINGTON - John Kerry broadened his winning streak to the Midwest and Pacific Northwest yesterday and marched closer to the Democratic presidential nomination, prevailing by wide margins in caucuses in Michigan, the first major industrial state to vote this year with the largest trove of delegate votes, and Washington.
The results came as runner-up Howard Dean, still winless after yesterday's caucuses, suffered a major setback to his embattled campaign when he got word that he would lose the support of one of two major unions backing him, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Kerry's victories yesterday were significant, coming in states that could be important battlegrounds with President Bush in November, and on a day when a substantial number of delegates were at stake - 128 in Michigan and 76 in Washington.
"George Bush, who speaks of strength, has actually made America weaker - weaker economically, weaker in health care for all our citizens, and weaker in education," Kerry said last night at a Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Richmond, Va. "The truth is, George Bush has made us weaker militarily by overextending our armed forces and driving away our allies."
The Massachusetts senator has now won races in nine of 11 states contested, and he gained even more momentum as he prepares for contests in Tennessee and Virginia on Tuesday and Wisconsin on Feb. 17. Those three states are quickly emerging as the last opportunities for his rivals to post a win that would allow them to mount a credible challenge to Kerry.
Dean, the former Vermont governor, is staking his teetering candidacy on Wisconsin, and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and former Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who is from Arkansas, are relying on a Southern strategy, hoping to do well in Tennessee and Virginia. Although they trailed well behind Kerry, their showings yesterday did not sideline them.
Kerry won 52 percent of the vote in Michigan. Dean, who abruptly quit campaigning there last week and decamped to Wisconsin, was in second place with 17 percent. Edwards won about 14 percent, while Clark lagged at 7 percent.
In Washington, with 97 percent of returns counted, Kerry had 49 percent. Even there, where Dean's candidacy was once seen as an obvious choice for the many liberal, technology-savvy voters, he fell short, with 30 percent.
Coming in third with his strongest showing yet at 8 percent was Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio congressman who has promised to withdraw U.S. troops immediately from Iraq and create a Department of Peace if elected. Edwards finished with just 7 percent, and Clark won 3 percent.
As final results came in last night, most of the candidates had long since turned their attention to the South, attending the Richmond dinner.
"As we stand here tonight, Virginia, a message is being sent from Michigan and Washington state," Kerry said to a crowd of several hundred cheering supporters at a hotel in downtown Richmond before going to the dinner. "It's the same message that was sent from Iowa to New Hampshire to Missouri to North Dakota to New Mexico to Arizona, and it is the message that I am carrying to Virginia and Tennessee. ... George Bush's days are numbered, and change is coming to America."
In his dinner speech, Kerry ignored his Democratic rivals to focus on the fall, directing his ire at Bush and his administration.
"I have news this time for George Bush and Karl Rove ... and the rest of their friends: I am not going to back down," Kerry said. "I am one Democrat who knows how to fight back, and I have only just begun to fight."
The message seemed tailor-made to refute Republican accusations that Kerry is nothing more than a "Massachusetts liberal" whose views are out of step with most Americans.
Now, Kerry must show that he can win in Southern states, where Democrats traditionally have performed poorly. He suffered his only losses this year in South Carolina to Edwards - who was born there - and in Oklahoma, a state that borders Clark's home.
Statewide polls show him ahead in Tennessee and Virginia. He is also favored in Maine, which holds its caucuses today, with 24 delegates being contested.
In a statement from Burlington, Vt., where he was attending his son's hockey match, Dean said he was buoyed by winning nearly a third of the vote in Washington.
"The people of Washington state have sent a clear message that they want this race and this debate to continue, and that our campaign is the real alternative to John Kerry," he said.
It was in part because of Dean's perceived popularity in Washington early on that other contenders curtailed their activities there. Like Michigan, Washington is struggling with an unemployment level far higher than the national rate.
"This was supposed to be an easy win for Dean," Kirstin Brost, a spokeswoman for Washington's Democratic Party said on Friday. "It was pretty much thought of as Dean country, and written off by a lot of candidates for that reason."
But then Dean surprised his supporters by retreating to Wisconsin, opening the way for Kerry's triumph. Despite the lack of a clear contest, more than 100,000 voters came to the state's caucuses - more than twice the previous record.
In Michigan, party officials in recent days drastically scaled back their expectations for record turnouts, blaming Kerry's momentum and a sense among some voters that their state's results would not affect the broader race for the Democratic nomination. But participation was still at one of the highest levels ever - more than 147,000 voted. That included 46,000 who voted by Internet, the first test of using the Web to cast ballots for presidential candidates.
Last-minute decisions to relocate some Detroit caucus sites led to widespread confusion that prompted Democratic officials to extend the voting in the city an extra two hours.
"It's important to us that every vote count," said Adrian Marsh, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Democratic Party. "We've gone above and beyond to make sure that people are not inhibited to get their votes cast."
Still, some civil rights groups complained about a process that favored wealthier, technologically literate voters at the expense of low-income voters or poorly educated voters who were less likely to have access to computers and the knowledge to use them.
Security concerns loomed in the minds of some technology experts, who worried about hackers tampering with results and felt that there was no way to guarantee that a registered voter was actually casting a ballot.
Kerry benefited in both of yesterday's contests from high-profile endorsements from the states' key Democrats. He was supported by the governors of both states, Jennifer M. Granholm in Michigan and Gary Locke in Washington, both regarded as a rising stars in the party. He also won the backing of both Michigan senators and of Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell.
But perhaps more than the backing of any official in the states that voted yesterday, it was the carefully timed endorsement Friday of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt that could pay lasting dividends for the front-runner.
The Missouri congressman, Kerry's one-time rival for the Democratic prize who enjoyed strong backing from a bevy of important industrial unions, could help transfer some of that support to Kerry.
In the Michigan caucuses, major unions such as the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters - usually formidable political forces in the state's elections - stayed on the sidelines yesterday. But in future primaries, union members could follow Gephardt's lead.
The Alliance for Justice, an umbrella group for the industrial and manufacturing unions, is expected next week to throw its support behind Kerry, giving him a hefty advantage over his rivals in turning out supporters for coming primaries and caucuses.
With AFSCME dropping Dean, speculation was rampant yesterday that it, too, might throw its support behind Kerry. The other big union supporting Dean, the Service Employees International Union, said it was standing by him.
John Kerry 52%
Howard Dean 17%
John Kerry 49%
Howard Dean 30%