WASHINGTON -- Wisconsin voters will have their say in the Democratic presidential primary today on whether the party's nomination should be conceded to Sen. John Kerry. But his two chief challengers, Sen. John Edwards and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, may not be listening.
Despite Dr. Dean's plea to Wisconsin voters not to "rubber-stamp" the endorsement of Mr. Kerry in 14 previous state primaries, the polls indicate the maverick Badger State will go with the Kerry tide, heightening pressure on Dr. Dean and Mr. Edwards to bow out.
A Kerry victory of emphatic proportions will add more weight to the argument that further contested primaries not only will be futile but also will risk greater division in the Democratic ranks, delaying a more intense focus on President Bush as the party's target.
Remarks by Dr. Dean and Mr. Edwards in Sunday night's debate in Milwaukee, however, suggest that one or both intend to persevere, despite the seemingly firm grip Mr. Kerry already has on the nomination.
Mr. Edwards particularly served notice on Mr. Kerry, who had just said he would "beat George Bush in November," by countering: "Not so fast, John Kerry. We're going to have an election here in Wisconsin this Tuesday, and we've got a whole group of primaries coming up. And I for one intend to fight with everything I've got for every one of those votes."
Dr. Dean, who earlier had said he would make his last stand in Wisconsin and later changed his mind, now says he will return to Vermont to reassess his situation after today's primary.
He said on a Sunday television talk show that he will not drop out tonight and appears to be searching for a way to maintain his "movement" short of a continued full-blown candidacy. A previous early front-runner who similarly saw his campaign crumble, Maine Sen. Edmund S. Muskie in 1972, simply "suspended" his campaign in advance of that year's Democratic convention on the chance fate might intervene. But it didn't; Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota held on and was nominated.
Presidential candidates, no matter how dismal their prospects, continue to insist they are going to hang in and win, not wanting to further undercut their dwindled chances. Even long-shot Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio said in Sunday's debate that he intended to be "the peace president."
Mr. Edwards has scheduled a three-day fly-around starting Thursday to New York, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio -- five of the 10 states holding a primary or caucus on Super Tuesday, Mar. 2.
That's when the active Democratic nomination campaign is now expected to end, if not before.
Even if the campaign goes on, however, Sunday night's debate in Milwaukee demonstrated the inhibiting dynamic produced by the existence of a front-runner seemingly on the brink of nomination amid widespread party sentiment that the incumbent president must be ousted.
Mr. Edwards, who has been riding a wave of popularity for running a positive campaign and has been yearning to be seen as the remaining alternative to Mr. Kerry, mounted only modulated criticism of him. The amiable North Carolinian seemed trapped in his own nice-guy reputation lest he damage it and open himself to allegations of being divisive after all.
Dr. Dean, too, still combating his self-imposed image as a candidate of anger and contradiction, backed off earlier sharp attacks on Mr. Kerry. He did not want to be accused, in his own word, of running a "quixotic" campaign that might hurt the party's chances against Mr. Bush.
With the Massachusetts senator on a roll and no major issue or personal flaw threatening to his nomination yet in sight, conventional political wisdom holds that unless either problem surfaces, or is injected into the campaign by the opposition, he will not be detoured.
Still, both Mr. Edwards and Dr. Dean argue that Democrats in the 35 states that have not yet voted deserve to have their say. And if the dynamic of guarded criticism of the front-runner holds sway, continuing the nomination campaign could actually help the party, and Mr. Kerry. It would keep the Democrats in the headlines and could prime Mr. Kerry to cope with much more pointed attacks already started by the Bush camp and more certainly to come.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.