RICHMOND, Va. - Sen. John Kerry added Maine's caucuses to his list of presidential victories yesterday, giving his front-running Democratic campaign fresh impetus going into potentially crucial Southern primaries tomorrow.
The Massachusetts senator has now won 10 of the first 12 delegate contests and built a solid lead in the delegate count. He could effectively put the nomination in his grip by winning Virginia and Tennessee tomorrow. Polls show him leading in both states.
"Today, the voters of Maine have sent a message that George Bush's days are numbered and change is coming to America," Kerry said in a victory statement.
He had 45 percent of the statewide vote in Maine, the state Democratic Party said, based on returns from 50 percent of the precincts. The victory gave Kerry a weekend sweep, after lopsided triumphs in Michigan and Washington state on Saturday.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was second in Maine, with 26 percent, and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich third with 15 percent. Both Dean and Kucinich made personal appeals for support at caucus sites yesterday, while Kerry spent the day in Virginia.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who did not make a serious effort in Maine, received 9 percent and 4 percent, respectively.
Kerry, campaigning increasingly as though he has the nomination locked up, intensified his criticism of President Bush. For the first time, he raised questions about Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam era.
Kerry said that Bush's honorable discharge "does not answer that question" of whether Bush failed to meet attendance requirements for one year while he was in the Guard. Kerry made the remarks to reporters in the early morning chill outside the Executive Mansion in Richmond, Va., where he received the endorsement of Virginia Gov. Mark Warner.
Question about Bush
A decorated Vietnam veteran, Kerry said it was up to others to determine whether Bush failed to fulfil his Texas Guard responsibilities while working in an Alabama Senate race in 1972. In a TV interview aired yesterday on NBC's Meet the Press, the president said he "did report. Otherwise I wouldn't have been honorably discharged." Bush said he would welcome the release of his Guard records but dismissed criticism of his service record as "politics."
Kerry insisted that he wasn't making an issue of Bush's Vietnam-era service but merely answering reporters' questions. The senator noted that, during the late 1960s, when Bush, using his father's political pull, joined the Texas Guard, "there were many people who chose to go to the Guard, because the odds of being called up and going to Vietnam were very low."
Kerry said that he had "never, ever, ever in my life criticized anybody for the choice they made. ... But when you make your choice, I think people have an obligation to at least live out the choice they make."
On Iraq, Kerry sharply criticized Bush for "changing his story" on why he decided to go to war, noting the president's comment in the NBC interview that Saddam Hussein "was dangerous, with the ability to make weapons."
The Democratic candidate contrasted that remark with earlier Bush statements that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
In voting in favor of the Iraq war resolution, he said he had "voted for a process, with the assurance of the president and of the secretary of state that the only rationale for going to war were the weapons of mass destruction."
The senator said Congress saw only the intelligence information that the administration "selectively chose to give us, and I think that's one of the major issues here." Bush said on NBC that members of Congress "saw the same intelligence" and "looked at exactly what I looked at, and they made an informed judgment based upon the information that I had."
By winning in Virginia and Tennessee, Kerry would deal severe blows to Edwards and Clark, his two Southern-oriented rivals.
Apparently reflecting his campaign's confidence, Kerry plans only a single stop today in Tennessee and one in Virginia.
Edwards, after winning his first primary last week in South Carolina, is hoping to keep his campaign going long enough to wind up as the only major contender left against Kerry.
But Edwards finished fourth in Washington state on Saturday and won fewer delegates than the Rev. Al Sharpton in Michigan the same day.
Edwards low on cash
Edwards does not have enough money to air TV commercials statewide in Virginia, which has kept him off the air in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, the most populous part of the state.
Clark has effectively pulled out of Virginia to concentrate on Tennessee, where polling showed him tied for second with Edwards. He also stopped paying his staff so that he would have enough money for ads in Tennessee. Both men insisted they would continue their campaigns, even if Kerry swept both states tomorrow.
"I'm in this for the long haul," Edwards said on ABC's This Week. He noted that even after next week's Wisconsin primary, about three-fourths of the convention delegates will still have to be chosen in the remaining 35 states.
Kerry, however, leads in the delegate count by better than 2-to-1 over Dean, in second place. According to the latest Associated Press tally, Kerry had 411 of the 2,162 delegates needed to win the nomination. The figure did not include the 24 delegates at stake yesterday in Maine, and includes superdelegates - elected officeholders and other party dignitaries in addition to the pledged delegates elected in caucuses and primaries.
Edwards, who described the primaries as a war of attrition, is struggling to keep his campaign afloat.
His money problems are complicating his chances of upsetting Kerry in Virginia.
Clark vows to stay in
Clark told CNN he expected to stay in the race until the big round of primaries March 2, "Super Tuesday," when California, New York, Ohio, Maryland, Georgia and five other states vote.
On Saturday, Clark finished fifth in both Michigan and Washington and failed to pick up a single delegate. He has effectively written off Virginia, pulling his ads off the air and leaving the state. He will spend today campaigning in Tennessee.
Dean, who has yet to win a state, has abandoned Virginia and Tennessee. The one-time front-runner has fallen back to Wisconsin, which votes next Tuesday. Dean has said he will quit the race if he loses there, where recent polling has shown him far behind.
Over the weekend, Dean was abandoned by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of two major unions that had backed his candidacy.
John Kerry ........... 45%
Howard Dean ........ 26%
Dennis Kucinich ... 15%
ABOUT 50% REPORTING
Tomorrow: Virginia and Tennessee primaries
Saturday: District of Columbia and Nevada caususes