WASHINGTON - John Kerry scored his first victories in the South yesterday, dominating his Democratic rivals in primaries in Tennessee and Virginia, forcing Wesley K. Clark to abandon the race and leaving John Edwards struggling to justify staying in.
The two-state sweep built more momentum behind Kerry's seemingly unstoppable winning streak, demonstrating the appeal of the Massachusetts senator's candidacy to a growing swath of Democrats, from New England to the Midwest and Great Plains to the South.
Clark, the novice politician with four-star military credentials, abandoned his presidential bid after two third-places finishes in the South.
The retired Army general will return to Little Rock, Ark., today to announce his departure from the race, said campaign spokesman Matt Bennett.
At George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Kerry told a room full of cheering supporters: "Once again, the message rings out loud and clear: Americans are voting for change - East and West, North and now in the South."
He thanked the voters of Tennessee and Virginia, saying, "Together across the South, you have shown that mainstream values that we share - fairness, love of country a belief in hope and in hard work - are more important than boundaries or birthplace."
The results raised new worries for Edwards, the North Carolina senator with the folksy drawl and populist message who calls the South "my back yard." Edwards finished a distant second yesterday in both Virginia and Tennessee.
Still, he is vowing to stay in the race to compete in Wisconsin - which holds its primary next Tuesday - in hopes of emerging as an alternative to Kerry in time for a host of contests in early March, including Maryland's March 2 primary.
"Thank all of you ... who voted today in the election for saying to the country that were going to have a campaign and an election, not a coronation," Edwards said last night in Milwaukee.
Clark withdrew from the race after a disappointing showing in both states. He had said early on that his centrist positions, military background and Arkansas upbringing would help him win Southern states, but he finished a far-distant third in Virginia and just behind Edwards in Tennessee.
"He made this decision after discussing it with his family and his staff," Bennett said. "It was a very difficult decision to make obviously. He did it after the final results were in for Tennessee and the decision is final."
Dean, once the front-runner in the Democratic field, skipped yesterday's contests to continue his intense push to win Wisconsin, a state he says is crucial to his flagging presidential bid. The support of former Vice President Al Gore evidently did nothing to boost Dean's fortunes in Gore's home state of Tennessee, where he was a distant fourth with single-digit support. He finished a weak third in Virginia.
Dean took a swipe at Kerry last night after the senator's victory speech, telling CNN's Larry King that the senator's surging candidacy "is not a prescription for change. ... We'll find out if voters in Wisconsin think John Kerry is really about change."
Highlighting Kerry's nearly 20 years in the Senate and his support for some of President Bush's initiatives - such as the Iraq war resolution and an education overhaul - Dean said, "I believe what my supporters want is a real choice. Many of them believe that they don't have a real choice if Senator Kerry is the nominee."
The former Vermont governor, who told supporters last week that Wisconsin would be his last stand in the race, now says he will continue competing even if he doesn't win there.
"I'm not going to run a quixotic campaign to ruin Democrats' chances of beating George Bush," Dean told CNN last night. He did not sound like a candidate preparing to step out of the fray, suggesting he would quit only "when it becomes mathematically impossible to win the race."
Still, Dean's campaign has pinned high hopes on Wisconsin, a state famous for its progressive tradition that they say is an ideal match for Dean's grass-roots effort.
But Kerry is far ahead in Wisconsin polls. And yesterday's victories boosted his winning tally to 12 out of the 14 states that have voted so far in the Democratic presidential contest. Democrats around the country appear to be flocking to Kerry in large part because they believe he is best-positioned to beat Bush.
Exit polls in Virginia and Tennessee both showed that Kerry won the support of an overwhelming majority of voters who said their top objective was defeating Bush.
As Kerry's tally of delegates steadily rises, he is increasingly behaving like the Democratic nominee, focusing his criticism on Bush and staying largely above the intra-party sniping.
"While George Bush may believe that the job of a president is just to drive the stock market up, we believe the job of a president is to put America back to work, and that's what we will do," Kerry said last night.
He repeated a line he has worked into his recent speeches saying that "George Bush, who speaks of strength, has made America weaker."
And when the crowd booed at the mention of the president's name, Kerry appeared to take a page from Edwards' relentlessly positive campaign, admonishing: "We're not going to boo in the course of this campaign; we're going to cheer for what we're going to do for this country."
Kerry is preparing to face what promises to be a barrage of assaults from Republicans branding him as an weak-kneed "Massachusetts liberal" if he secures the nomination.
Edwards is stubbornly refusing to bow out of the race, and aides say they believe he can stay in until "Super Tuesday" - March 2 - when they see a chance for him to make strong showings in such states as California, New York, Maryland and Ohio. The only Southern state that will vote March 2 is Georgia, with 86 of 1,151 delegates being contested that day.
Kerry said he wasn't taking any state for granted.
2,307 of 2,307 precincts -- 100%
Candidate ............... Votes ... %
John Kerry ....... 203,486 52%
John Edwards .... 104,782 27%
Wesley Clark ....... 36,461 9%
Howard Dean ....... 27,582 7%
Al Sharpton .......... 12,822 3%
Dennis Kucinich .... 5,074 1%
Joseph Lieberman . 2,889 1%
2,309 of 2,349 precincts -- 98%
Candidate .............. Votes ... %
John Kerry .........150,185 41%
John Edwards ..... 96,732 26%
Wesley Clark .......84,589 23%
Howard Dean ....... 15,985 4%
Al Sharpton ........... 6,080 2%
Joe Lieberman ...... 3,176 1%
Dennis Kucinich ... 2,264 1%