WASHINGTON -- John Kerry appears to have the Democratic presidential nomination within his grasp after convincing victories in the latest primaries, party strategists and analysts said last night.
By sweeping yesterday's Southern elections, the Massachusetts senator has won Democratic contests in every section of the country. He has captured 12 of the first 14 states, mostly by substantial margins, and does not appear to have a serious challenge in upcoming delegate tests.
"The race, for all intents and purposes, is locked up," said Steve Richetti, a top Clinton White House aide, who is neutral in the Democratic race. "Kerry's not just winning the Democratic primaries. He's enormously enhanced his stature as a formidable competitor to Bush. That doesn't always occur in a primary season. What's dramatic about this is that we're only in mid-February."
It will take several more weeks of primaries, at least, before Kerry can win enough convention delegates to guarantee his nomination. But barring unexpected developments, the 60-year-old Boston liberal will likely be the Democratic challenger against President Bush this fall.
In his march toward the nomination, Kerry has benefited from several unusual factors.
A new primary calendar, which compressed more states into January and February than ever before, magnified the importance of his victories in the first two contests. His rivals have been unable to brake his momentum since he won Iowa, just three weeks ago.
They face another uphill fight in next Tuesday's Wisconsin primary, where polls show Kerry with a big lead.
Kerry has also had the good fortune of competing in a large field of candidates with few real issue differences among them. That has fragmented the opposition and made it difficult for a single rival to engage him in a head-to-head duel.
In addition, the lessons many Democrats drew from early skirmishing in Iowa, where negative campaign tactics apparently backfired on those who used them, made Kerry's opponents wary of aggressively attacking him once he emerged as the front-runner.
The remaining contenders will come under increasing pressure to withdraw. Party leaders had said in advance of yesterday's contests that if the Southern candidates -- Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, from Arkansas -- failed to defeat Kerry in the South, they should quit.
Clark did just that, dropping out of the race late last night.
But Edwards and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean intend to challenge Kerry in Wisconsin, and perhaps beyond, hoping that the front-runner will stumble or that voters will start to sour on him.
Two minor candidates, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, also say they plan to keep running all the way to the convention this summer.
Kerry, eager to put the primaries behind him, began his first tentative effort yesterday to nudge others from the race.
The senator's campaign released an endorsement statement from Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, an important liberal who had supported Rep. Richard A. Gephardt. In it, Obey praised the top contenders, including Dean, who he said "energized the Democratic Party when Democrats were faint of heart."
"But," Obey said, "the time for preliminary skirmishes is over. We need to close ranks and get about the task of putting a Democrat in the White House. John Kerry has built a record of integrity, toughness, honor, and justice."
When to exit
Democratic strategists said that until his rivals pull out, Kerry cannot consolidate his efforts for the fight against Bush.
The senator, who owes his campaign $6.4 million borrowed on his Boston townhouse, needs to raise a substantial amount of money to sustain him during the period leading up to the national convention in July.
Bush's campaign will have as much as $200 million to spend during that period, and much of it is likely to be used for ads attacking his Democratic opponent.
Steve Murphy, who was Gephardt's campaign manager, said the remaining question for Democrats concerns the timing of the other candidates' departure from the contest. "The race is over now," Murphy said. "Democratic primary voters are in the process of tuning out the nomination fight. They're ready to get on with the business of beating George W. Bush. Dean and Edwards are just seeking the right moment to exit."
Murphy and others noted that Kerry had begun turning his attention toward Bush over the past week or two.
During that period, public opinion polls have shown the potential for a close election in November between Bush and Kerry.
An immediate decision for Kerry strategists will be what to do about the remaining scheduled Democratic debates, starting with Sunday's 90-minute forum in Milwaukee. Kerry is the only major candidate who has not said he will appear.
According to Edwards' campaign manager, Nick Baldick, at least a half-dozen other debates are scheduled between now and Super Tuesday, March 2.
But it appears unlikely that they would be held, or at least receive significant news media attention, without Kerry's participation.
Kerry will want to continue campaigning in remaining primary states, said Democrats with experience in similar contests, in order to become better known to voters.
But he will face a more difficult challenge than the last nominee, Al Gore, did after he wrapped up the nomination in mid-March.
That's because Bush will enjoy a lopsided edge in campaign cash over the spring and summer, unless Kerry can raise enough to counter it.
Otherwise, the Democrat will be forced to rely heavily on news coverage to get his message out to the public and fend off Bush's attempts to define him in unflattering terms.
"In 2000, at least, the Democrats had the White House to make news, and Gore and the White House could try to retain some measure of control," said Elaine Kamarck, a senior Gore campaign adviser in 2000. This year, Bush and the Republicans are in control in Washington.
"These primaries have been very good in the last month at getting the Democratic message out against Bush," she added. "Once there's no longer a contest in the Democratic Party, then you can't expect the [news media] to carry your message. So this becomes the danger period for Kerry. It's a very, very dangerous period."
Democratic race at a glance
What it means
Looks like the big winner in the Democratic presidential sweepstakes. Front-loading the primary calendar works.
Nine very long months of fending off attacks from President Bush and the Republicans. Time to shake Democratic money tree.
What it means
Incredible shrinking former front-runner continues his fade. Nothing to show for another primary day.
A last-ditch gamble in Wisconsin next Tuesday. A solid second might be the best he can do there.
What it means
Primary defeats in two states that border his own. So much for the claim that the South is his backyard.
Y'all think I'll go any better in Wisconsin? Super Tuesday is three long weeks away.
What it means
Flops in Tennessee after out-spending his rivals and misfires in Virginia. Time to surrender, General.
A graceful withdrawal speech, and the it's back to the corporate boardroom.
THE OTHERS: In the 1988 campaign, Jesse L. Jackson won Virginia. The Rev. Al Sharpton proved he's no Jesse last night. He and Dennis Kucinich will keep showing up for debates -- the next one is in Milwaukee on Sunday night. Both have home state primaries on March 2 -- in New York and Ohio.