A Los Angeles Times poll finds the Massachusetts senator with a 56 percent to 24 percent lead over John Edwards, the North Carolina senator who is hoping to block Kerry's march to the nomination. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio gets 4 percent and Rev. Al Sharpton 1 percent in the poll of 560 likely voters, which had a three-point error margin.
California, with 370 delegates, is the jackpot in next week's Super Tuesday sweepstakes. In nine other states — Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont — another 781 delegates are at stake.
Ignoring primaries Tuesday in Hawaii, Idaho and Utah where a mere 61 delegates are on the table, the Democratic frontrunners pitched themes new and old. Kerry looked ahead to a confrontation with President Bush, but had to defend his voting record on national security. Edwards stuck with his emphasis on trade and jobs, but also appealed to supporters of former candidate Howard Dean.
CBS News Anchor Dan Rather will moderate a debate among the four Democratic presidential contenders on Sunday, Feb. 29, at 11:00 AM ET. Watch a live Webcast on CBSNews.com.
Despite a series of close second-place finishes, Edwards has only won one primary, South Carolina, the state where he was born.
He has campaign stops in Atlanta on Tuesday as he seeks to build support in 10 March 2 "Super Tuesday" states.
Edwards has an uphill battle, and advisers were hoping for a strong showing in Georgia to bolster the North Carolina senator's claim that he can deliver southern votes for Democrats in a November match up with President Bush.
On Monday, Edwards pressed his campaign in areas suffering as a result of free trade, drawing distinctions with Kerry by emphasizing his own humble origins as the son of a mill worker whose plant was forced to close.
"I've lived with this all my life," Edwards told an overflow crowd of hundreds in a converted train depot in Albany, Ga., as a freight train whistle wailed in the background.
He sounded the same theme earlier in the day in New York City, when he told garment workers at a union hall in the city's garment district "I take personally" the effort to restore lost U.S. jobs.
Edwards is also courting Dean supporters and hoping for an endorsement from Dean that has yet to materialize.
Edwards has also urged would-be supporters of Ralph Nader to vote for him instead, vowing to be as much of a consumer advocate as Nader.
Kerry, meanwhile, engaged in a bitter exchange with Republicans over his voting record on defense.
While the four-term Massachusetts senator has voted for nearly all of the Defense Department's spending and authorization bills since 1990 — as the overall total has crept closer to $400 billion — he has a long record of backing cuts to a number of military aircraft and missile-defense programs, an Associated Press analysis shows.
Leading Republicans, including party chairman Ed Gillespie, have seized on those votes to challenge Kerry, questioning the Democratic front-runner's record on national security.
Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, argued Monday that the criticism of his votes amounts to an attack on his patriotism, questioning Republicans "who never fought in a war."
"They're somehow stronger on defense because they embrace every (weapons) system that was ever proposed," Kerry said. "That's not the measure of whether you're strong on defense."
The Bush-Cheney campaign said it is not questioning Kerry's patriotism or military service but rather his 19-year voting record in the Senate on military issues.
"Every time we have brought to light his voting record, he has responded by saying we have attacked his patriotism," Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot said in a conference call with reporters. "We have praised repeatedly his patriotism."
The Washington Post reports that defense is not the only area where Kerry's record could post problems: In his stump speech he regularly criticizes the president's trade policies, education plan, restrictions on civil liberties and Iraq war. Yet Kerry voted for all of them.