Kerry's brief visit to the Badger State, his first since June, lasted long enough for him to collect the formal endorsement of a defeated rival, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, and resume his attacks on Bush.
According to the latest polling, Kerry leads by a wide margin in Wisconsin. Next week's election could be the last for one-time front-runner Howard Dean, who might finish a weak third here, behind Kerry and Sen. John Edwards.
Continuing his pattern of ignoring Democratic opponents, Kerry instead responded forcefully to the Bush campaign's first ad, which effectively kicked off the general election fight, even before the Massachusetts senator locked up the nomination.
The new ad was posted on Bush's campaign Web site (www.georgewbush.com) and e-mailed to 6 million supporters Thursday night. It accused Kerry of hypocrisy over special-interest money and attempted to turn the Democrat's criticism of Washington "influence peddlers" against him by noting that Kerry had accepted more special-interest money than any other senator.
The Kerry campaign, in a statement, responded that Bush had taken more lobbyist money in the 2004 campaign than Kerry had in his entire Senate career. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, whose figures were used by both campaigns, the president has received $960,154 from lobbyists, versus Kerry's 19-year total of nearly $640,000.
Kerry said Bush's negative ad was "no surprise." He said the president's shortcomings had left him with nothing to talk about "except destruction, except negative, except the politics of tearing down."
Kerry made the remarks at a rally on the University of Wisconsin campus, where a beaming Clark delivered his endorsement. The former NATO commander, who was attacking Kerry less than two weeks ago, praised the senator for having "the right experience, the right values, the right leadership, the right character and the right message."
"He'll stand up to the Republican attack dogs and send them home licking their wounds," said Clark.
Kerry, like Clark a decorated Vietnam veteran, welcomed the retired general's promise of campaign help. Clark, he said, is "going to help walk point in this great battle as we go forward to take back the presidency."
Later, Kerry won praise from Wisconsin Gov. James E. Doyle, who has said he is neutral in the presidential race.
"Wouldn't he make a great president of the United States?" gushed the Democratic governor during the last in a series of candidate forums in which he has played host.
A new statewide poll, released yesterday by the American Research Group, found that Clark's withdrawal from the race is helping Kerry pad an already substantial lead. With Clark out, Kerry's lead over his nearest challenger jumped to 37 percentage points, from 26 a week earlier.
Louise Jeanne, 63, of Madison, a former Clark backer, said she was "99 percent sure" she would vote for Kerry. "I like his experience, and he has the money to fight back against Bush," she said.
The new Wisconsin opinion survey, which had a 4-percentage-point margin of possible sampling error, also found that likely primary voters were more than twice as likely to have a negative view of Dean than a positive one and showed Edwards moving ahead of Dean into second place.
Edwards has been focusing on jobs and trade in Wisconsin, which has suffered heavy job losses.
Michelle Frahm, 33, an unemployed grocery clerk from Racine, said she agrees with Bush's anti-abortion views but thinks the president needs to be replaced.
Frahm said she could support either Kerry or Edwards but thinks her vote is more valuable to Edwards, who is struggling to keep his candidacy alive beyond Tuesday's election.
"I wouldn't like to see the race end. I'd like to see it go another couple weeks," she said.
One candidate who might not keep going is Dean. As he continues to waver over whether a defeat would force him from the race, there has been an elegiac quality to his campaigning here.
"We can change this country, but we are losing the opportunity to do that as the election gets closer," he told supporters in Madison.
Dean once said he would go all-out for votes in Wisconsin, but he will skip tonight's big Democratic Party dinner in Milwaukee and attend his son's hockey game in Vermont instead. He is to return for tomorrow evening's TV debate, perhaps the last of the primary campaign.
Dean ads urge voters to indulge their maverick tendencies and not be a "rubber stamp" for pollsters and pundits. But from top politicians and independent analysts in this state down to ordinary voters, the prevailing view is that Wisconsin will fall in line behind the presumptive nominee.
"I don't think there's going to be an upset here," said Edwin Andersen, 78, a party activist from Kenosha. "They say Democrats are really interested in somebody who can beat Bush, and the consensus now is that Kerry is the person who can do that."