CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
If Sen. John Kerry sweeps the primaries in Tennessee and Virginia he is practically assured the Democratic nomination for president.
To do that, the Brahmin New Englander will have to win two Southern states over two sons of the South. An outcome that seemed outrageous a month ago is now close to becoming a reality.
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Arkansan Wesley Clark are fighting it out - for second that is. Both men trail Kerry by double digits in recent polls.
The latest MSNBC/Reuters/Zogby tracking poll in Virginia has Kerry in the lead with 47 percent. Edwards is second with 24 percent. Clark trails with 11 percent. The same poll tells much the same story in Tennessee, where Kerry leads with 45 percent. Edwards has 21 percent and Clark 19 percent.
Clark is more competitive in Tennessee because he has focused his campaign on the state. The retired general knows Tennessee is one fight he must win.
"Edwards and Clark are going after each other in Tennessee. They are going after each other hard, which is just really stupid," Larry Sabato said, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. "They are going to wipe each other out."
Fresh off the Sunday endorsement by Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, Kerry remains as formidable as ever.
"If Kerry wins Tennessee and Virginia I think it pretty well solidifies the nomination," said Randy Button, head of the Tennessee Democratic Party. "Tennessee is going to be really tight. It will be like Oklahoma, but it has twice the number of delegates."
Edwards' weak position in Tennessee and Virginia seems puzzling at first blush. The North Carolina senator exudes the South both in manner and speech. And his populist message seems tailored to Tennessee, where more than 60,000 jobs have been lost since President Bush took office, and Virginia, where 15 textile mills closed since 1997, a fact Edwards cites repeatedly.
But many Democrats in both states are hungry to find a candidate who can beat Mr. Bush, and have settled on Kerry as the man to do the job.
So the Vietnam veteran rolls on, seemingly unscathed by his upper-class New Englander demeanor, his staunchly liberal voting record, and his assertion that a Democrat can capture the presidency without the South.
But of course, these are just primaries.
"For the general election the cultural gap is unbridgeable. But for the Democratic primary, when there is a low turnout, attended by mainly liberal Democrats, it is no problem at all," Sabato said. "Kerry is a Massachusetts liberal, period. He is so liberal even the Democratic Party in Virginia wouldn't nominate him for state office."
After registering decisive victories in Michigan, Maine and Washington state this past weekend, Kerry has won 10 of 12 primary contests. He has twice the delegates as his nearest rival, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
Dean is not campaigning in Virginia or Tennessee, staking his candidacy instead on the Feb. 17 Wisconsin primary. Edwards and Clark have vowed to continue their fight next week even if Kerry wins both primaries. For the challengers, Wisconsin will likely become their Alamo. Kerry leads all of his foes in Wisconsin by more than 20 points in the polls.
"Kerry is likely to win at least one of the two states on Tuesday, game over," Sabato said. "How could Dean, Edwards and Clark sustain the belief that they would be the nominee, absent a scandal?"