Can Anyone Catch Kerry?

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., gestures while addressing a rally at the Fargo Air Museum in Fargo, N.D., Sunday Feb. 1, 2004.
Tuesday may be the last chance for the Democratic opponents to catch the still surging John Kerry. John Edwards must win his native state of South Carolina to stay in the race. Wesley Clark's must-win is Oklahoma, where he holds a slim lead. Howard Dean is hoping to pass and play later.

Kerry's victories in Iowa and New Hampshire have positioned the Massachusetts senator to win at least five of Tuesday's seven primary and caucus contests. He currently leads the polls everywhere except South Carolina and Oklahoma, although he is down in those states by narrow margins. Kerry is also the only Democratic hopeful running ads in all seven states.

Kerry's competitors are taking a piecemeal approach, hoping to win one state or at least place high enough to gain delegates in states they lose.

"It is almost over if Kerry sweeps," said Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and author of "The Clinton Wars." "My own view is they (Kerry's opponents) may be too late. They are adopting the strategy to raise questions about Kerry ex post facto – the facto being that he has run away with Iowa and New Hampshire already."

With 269 delegates at stake on Tuesday, the third-largest single-day take on the primary calendar, Edwards badly needs South Carolina's 45, and not just because he was born in the state, nor because it neighbors the state he now represents in the U.S. Senate. The trial attorney turned politician staked his candidacy on being able to win in the South, where Democrats have lost to Republicans for decades.

A CBS News poll of South Carolina voters, released Monday morning, showed Edwards in the lead with 28 percent, followed by Kerry at 24. Clark and the Rev. Al Sharpton were tied for third with about 10 percent, with Dean slightly behind. Today's Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby tracking poll showed about a five-point gap between the leaders.

If Edwards does not win South Carolina, then by his own admission his candidacy is over, providing he doesn't finish a close second to Kerry. But such a conclusion would nearly assure that Kerry had swept the seven states, virtually handing him the nomination one month prior to when Democratic national chairman Terry McAuliffe says he expects the nominee to be known.

Realizing his campaign had an uphill battle on Tuesday, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean decided to bypass the day's contests, which crisscross the country from North Dakota to New Mexico to Delaware.

With polls showing Dean trailing badly and with his campaign struggling financially – he recently brought in veteran political operative Roy Neel to reorganize – Dean suspended advertising in the Feb. 3 states in order to focus on the Feb. 7 caucuses in Michigan and Washington. He's also looking ahead to the Feb. 17 Wisconsin primary.

"Howard Dean has to win at some point," Blumenthal said. "This is a ruthless and merciless process that eliminates people very quickly. It is not abstract. There is a price. The price is that you have no money and can't carry on."

The Brookings Institution's Thomas Mann, an expert on political campaigning, agreed. "It's very hard to stay credible when you don't win events," Mann said. "If Edwards or Clark manage to win a state that probably gives them grounds to continue.

"What Dean is counting on is that Kerry will be denied a sweep on Feb. 3, and ultimately buyers' remorse will take hold and people will look back at him," Mann continued.

Barring any more gaffes shifting the foundation of the race, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman will likely lose all seven contests by large margins and be unable to continue. His one hope is to meet the 15 percent threshold needed to qualify for delegates, which is remote but possible in states like Delaware and Arizona.

Unlike Lieberman, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Rev. Al Sharpton should place poorly in all seven states, but will likely stay in the race for at least another month.

"Certainly Sharpton and Kucinich are immune to perceptions of political reality," Blumenthal asserts, noting that neither candidate went into the presidential race with realistic ambitions of winning a state.

Sharpton, however, is hoping for a strong showing in South Carolina, where 40 percent of likely voters are black. Last week's endorsement of Kerry by Rep. Jim Clyburn, South Carolina's most prominent black politician, should help assure that the black vote won't stand solidly behind any one candidate.

"South Carolina is a state the Democrats are never going to win in a general election," Blumenthal said, adding that all eyes should instead be on Missouri.

"Missouri is a swing state. It's a state that embodies north and south and east and west," Blumenthal continued. "If the Democrats win it they will win the election."

The Show Me State became an open field after Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt quit the race after soundly losing the Iowa caucus. Mann believes that even if Democrats lose in the South, appealing to voters there could mean success in the industrial Midwest. "That could translate to winning Missouri in the general election," he said.

Kerry has a commanding lead in Missouri, which holds 74 delegates, the most up for grabs on Tuesday. A Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby tracking poll there shows Kerry with 50 percent of the vote, more than 30 points ahead of his nearest rival. But 11 percent of Missouri voters remain undecided, leaving some room for a surprise.

Dean wants that surprise. Winning undecideds could allow him to surmount the threshold to gain delegates. However, it's more likely that he won't qualify for any delegates in the majority of Tuesday's contests.

"I think there is a very important question Howard Dean has to face," Blumenthal said of the former front-runner who once brandished the covers of Time and Newsweek.

"How does Dean keep his constituency from becoming disillusioned and threatening to drop out, and maintain a role for himself as possibly a political appointee in a future Democratic administration," Blumenthal said. "He's not unimaginable as a Health and Human Services Secretary."