WASHINGTON - Sen. John Kerry is gunning for a sweep of pivotal primaries today in Tennessee and Virginia by calling attention to his military background and assailing President Bush's national security record.
The Massachusetts Democrat has yet to win in the South. But finishing first in both contests could all but give him the nomination.
"He will have established himself as someone who can win all across the country, and I can't imagine anything that would happen in Wisconsin or on March 2 [Super Tuesday] that would do anything but confirm the fact that he will be the nominee," said Mark Siegel, a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee. "He's on a roll."
Kerry has increasingly turned his attention to the fall campaign and paid little attention to Democratic opponents. In the past week, he's zeroed in on national defense - a concern of many voters in the South - as a way of attacking Bush's leadership and highlighting his own war exploits.
"I remember what it was like to carry an M-16 in another country thousands of miles away and to not be able to tell the difference between who was trying to kill me and who wasn't, who was my friend and who was my foe," the decorated Vietnam veteran told voters yesterday in Roanoke, Va.
"I learned about a lot of questions a president ought to ask before you send young people into harm's way."
Pre-election polling in Virginia and Tennessee showed Kerry leading by more than 20 percentage points over North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the only Southern candidates in the race.
An increasingly confident Kerry made just two campaign stops yesterday, one in Roanoke and another in Memphis, Tenn. While Bush struggles with questions about prewar intelligence on Iraq, Kerry has been stepping up his attacks.
He told Virginia Democrats that Bush had made the country weaker by "overextending the military" and "driving our allies away."
Kerry boasted that he didn't need to "play dress-up" on an aircraft carrier and challenged the president to make good his vow to put national security at the center of the fall campaign debate.
Kerry has criticized Bush's foreign policy as "arrogant, inept and reckless," attacked the administration over cuts in veterans health care and said Bush has not done enough to protect U.S. personnel in Iraq.
Kerry warns that he won't let Republicans stereotype him as a soft-headed liberal, the way Bush's father successfully portrayed Michael S. Dukakis, another Massachusetts Democrat, in the 1988 presidential election.
Meanwhile, Edwards and Clark appear to have neither the money nor the time to fight Kerry in the South. Clark abandoned Virginia in favor of an all-out push in Tennessee. Edwards failed to raise enough money to air commercials in Northern Virginia, the most populous part of the state. Edwards made only a single appearance there in the closing week of the campaign.
Edwards has made an appeal to regional pride, saying: "The South is not George Bush's back yard; it's my back yard."
Edwards' only primary victory came in South Carolina, his native state. The North Carolina senator plans to be in Milwaukee tonight, a tacit acknowledgement that he doesn't expect to have much to celebrate when the returns roll in from two states that border North Carolina. But he signaled his intention to continue his campaign, scheduling events tomorrow and Thursday in Wisconsin.
Edwards' supporters still talk of targeting several states where Democrats will vote in March 2 primaries, including California, New York, Ohio and Maryland. But unless Edwards runs well today, he might not be able to sustain that plan, in light of poor showings in delegate tests over the weekend.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the one-time Democratic front-runner, is not considered a factor in Virginia or Tennessee, despite backing from Al Gore. The former vice president delivered a freewheeling attack on Bush's Iraq policy at a rally Sunday in Nashville, Tenn., but mentioned Dean only in passing.
Dean has called Wisconsin do-or-die for his fading candidacy, though polling shows Kerry with a commanding lead in the Badger State. Yesterday, Dean said that he had changed his mind and would stay in the race, even if he loses next Tuesday.
Independents and Republicans are eligible to vote in today's Democratic primaries, which might help Clark and Edwards. But there have been few crossover votes in this year's primaries, and independents have not played a major role.
Even if Kerry wins by wide margins today, it would not automatically establish him as a strong general election contender in the South. He has said that he could win the presidency without carrying any Southern states, and chances are that he might have to.
The South remains reliably Republican in presidential elections. President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan, was the only Democrat to carry Virginia in the past half-century. Gore lost his home state of Tennessee to Bush in 2000.
With many moderate and conservative whites there having defected to the Republican Party over the years, "Democrats in Tennessee are more like Democrats nationally," said Bruce Oppenheimer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
He said Kerry seems to be benefiting in the South from the dynamics that have helped him win all 10 primaries and caucuses held outside the region.
"Kerry keeps racking up wins, and that makes people be more attracted to him, and there doesn't seem to be a viable alternative," Oppenheimer said.
Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, likes to brag about his state's diversity, from the coal mines in the state's southwest corner to the huge naval base at Hampton Roads to the ethnically diverse suburbs outside Washington. But that also makes the state less like other Southern states, especially in a Democratic primary.
Northern Virginia "is like a suburb of Boston. If you get into the rest of Virginia, then you get into a real Southern vote," said Dave "Mudcat" Sanders, a Democratic consultant who helped Warner win in 2001 by appealing to "NASCAR dads" in rural parts of the state.
Virginia was never an ideal state for Edwards because of Northern Virginia's heavy influence in primary contests, said Robert Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University.
"It's a suburb of Washington not terribly different from the [Maryland] suburbs," Holsworth said. "It's a place that might be uninterested in a non-Washington candidate" such as Edwards, who campaigns as an outsider.
"It's the place where you'd expect Kerry to run strong and where the argument about electability that Kerry's been making would get a sympathetic ear."