The latest CBS News poll of South Carolina voters showed Edwards in the lead with 28 percent, followed by Kerry at 24. The Rev. Al Sharpton was in third place with 13 percent and retired Gen. Wesley Clark was next at 10 percent; former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut were in single digits.
On the eve of a crucial cross-country contest, Edwards joined Dean in calling the front-running Kerry a friend of special interests.
Kerry went for the jugular against Edwards, questioning the North Carolina senator's credentials and electability.
"This is not the time for on-the-job training," Kerry told South Carolina reporters Monday via satellite from Albuquerque, N.M. In a speech, the four-term Massachusetts senator looked confidently beyond the nomination fight to a potential race against President Bush.
"Like father like son. One term only," Kerry said. "Bush is going to be done."
Though they would agree with that point, Kerry's chief rivals said he is not the candidate best suited to stand up to Mr. Bush.
"It's going to take one tough hombre," Wesley Clark said while courting Hispanic voters in New Mexico. "And I'm one tough hombre."
So nobody would miss the point, Clark spoke a bit of Spanish and told voters about his 5-week-old grandson — Wesley Pablo Oviedo Clark — whose mother, the wife of Clark's only son, is Colombian.
Clark, Edwards, Dean and Lieberman faced long odds trying to slow Kerry's momentum. Polls showed him with solid leads in Missouri, Arizona, New Mexico, Delaware and North Dakota. Kerry was within reach of victory in the remaining two states, South Carolina and Oklahoma.
In his must-win state of South Carolina, Edwards showed his edgy side Monday, as the normally upbeat, stay-positive candidate took a shot at Kerry.
"I think we want real change in Washington. We need somebody who hasn't been there for 15, 20 years to bring about that change," he said.
Edwards is going after Kerry for taking more money from Washington lobbyists than any other senator over the past 15 years.
"I don't take contributions from lobbyists, and he obviously does," Edwards told reporters.
But, truth be told, Edwards takes special interest money too. A multi-millionaire trial lawyer himself, he has pulled in millions from attorneys, reports CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts.
Edwards accepted one donation in 2002 directly from a lobbying firm and collected more than $80,000 from people who aren't formally registered as lobbyists but nonetheless work for some of Washington's powerhouse firms. He also has accepted more than $150,000 worth of flights aboard the corporate jets of special interests.
Dean chimed in from New Mexico, where he conducted 21 satellite interviews with stations from seven states.
"He's gotten more money from special interest than any other senator in the last 15 years," he said of Kerry. "That is exactly why we're not getting anywhere in Washington."
Clark, a former lobbyist himself, hopes to salvage his candidacy in Oklahoma, where polls show him in a three-way race with Edwards and Kerry.
Dean, who just three weeks ago was considered the race's front-runner, has not advertised in the seven states voting Tuesday. The cash-strapped candidate also decided against advertising in Michigan, the delegate-rich state holding caucuses Saturday. And he likely will forgo advertising in Washington state, Maine, Tennessee and Virginia.
Dean is saving his money for an ad blitz in Wisconsin, site of a Feb. 17 primary.
"Michigan is ungodly expensive. You have to spend millions to make a dent so it doesn't make much sense to do that," said Roy Neel, hired by Dean last week to run his campaign. Joe Trippi resigned as campaign manager last week, and Dean's political director took a leave this weekend.
Aides said Dean is raising about $200,000 a day, enough for Neel to lift a payroll freeze. Still, Dean's most powerful backers were getting nervous.
Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, issued a weak-kneed reaffirmation of his union's support: "We're here solidly at the moment."
A fresh spate of endorsements added weight to Kerry's argument that Democrats leaders are rallying behind his front-running candidacy. Two unions announced their endorsements, as well as Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, Reps. Mark Udall of Colorado and Ruben Hinojosa of Texas and New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
Between satellite interviews, Kerry spoke to an aide about polls showing Bush winning Edwards' home state.
"Edwards says he's the only one who can win states in the South. He can't win his own states," Kerry said.
The candidates roundly criticized President Bush for his $2.4 trillion election-year budget, featuring a $521 billion deficit and cuts in domestic programs. "We can't afford another four year of the same destructive fiscal leadership," Lieberman said.