For John Edwards, two seems to be the magic number. His rival, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, has won all but two of the Democratic primaries thus far, but the North Carolina senator once again placed No. 2 in Wisconsin, effectively narrowing the race to just two candidates.
Now the question becomes: Is that too little, too late?
The Wisconsin primary on Feb. 17 was supposed to be a two-man race between Sen. Kerry and Howard Dean, who had staked his incredible shrinking campaign on a strong finish in a state known for its left-wing Democratic politics. In the end, however, the former Vermont governor was barely a factor in the race. His distant third-place finish left him little choice but to pull the plug on a campaign that had already spent weeks on life support.
"I am no longer actively pursuing the presidency," Dr. Dean told a crowd of die-hard supporters in Burlington, Vt., the day after his latest defeat. "We will, however, continue to build a new organization using our enormous grassroots network to continue the effort to transform the Democratic Party and to change our country."
The one-time front-runner refused to endorse either of his two remaining rivals, though he vowed not to run on a third-party ticket: "The bottom line is that we must beat George W. Bush in November, whatever it takes."
He spoke proudly of the movement he created-a movement that will go on, he said, even if his own candidacy does not. "We are not going away. We're staying together, unified, all of us."
If Dr. Dean was understandably grim, Sen. Edwards appeared positively giddy after his strong finish on Tuesday. Weekend polls showed him trailing by 25 to 30 points, but by the time the voting booths closed, the race had become too close to call. At one point in the evening, as results trickled in, Sen. Edwards actually led the seemingly unstoppable Sen. Kerry by a point or two.
It was a similar out-of-the-blue, come-from-behind performance in Iowa that first vaulted Sen. Edwards to prominence, and a series of second-place finishes since then helped him outlast better-known rivals such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Dr. Dean. By giving the front-runner a good scare in Wisconsin, Sen. Edwards quieted critics who wanted him to bow out of the race for the sake of party unity.
Wisconsin, in fact, proved that the Democrats just might be uniting too quickly behind a candidate with limited appeal in key regions. Sen. Edwards has based his campaign on a populist message that stresses lost jobs and low morale among workers. With Democratic primary voters focused on ousting President Bush in November, issues like jobs and the economy have taken a back seat to the perceived electability of the candidates.
But in Wisconsin, a state that has lost some 75,000 manufacturing jobs since George W. Bush took office, voters finally seemed to hear the Edwards message. In a week of hectic campaigning, he stressed over and over again his opposition to the North American Free Trade agreement, which he blamed for exporting jobs south of the border. Sen. Kerry supported NAFTA, Sen. Edwards frequently pointed out.
Exit polls by the Associated Press indicated that more than 40 percent of Wisconsin voters considered the economy the most important issue in the election, and Sen. Edwards carried those voters by better than 10 percentage points.
"Today, the voters in Wisconsin sent a clear message," Sen. Edwards told his supporters after the polls closed. "The message was this: 'Objects in your mirror may be closer than they appear.'"
Indeed, the race itself is closer than the mere delegate count would suggest. After 14 wins in 16 attempts, Sen. Kerry is the overwhelming leader, with 608 delegates already pledged to support him. Dr. Dean, despite his sputtering campaign, is in second place with 201 delegates, followed closely by Sen. Edwards at 190.
Those seemingly good numbers mask a mathematical problem for the front-runner: With only two candidates left standing, Sen. Kerry can't lock up the required 2,161 delegates until mid-March, at the earliest. Democratic primary rules stipulate that any candidate polling at least 15 percent in a primary should get a proportionate number of delegates to the party convention. Numerous minor candidates in the early primaries could hold each other's vote total below the 15 percent threshold, allowing Sen. Kerry-as a front-runner with plenty of money and momentum-to pick up nearly all the delegates.
But now that the race has boiled down to just two serious contenders, states are likely to split their delegates more evenly. In Wisconsin, for instance, CNN estimated that Sen. Kerry picked up 30 delegates, compared to 24 for Sen. Edwards. If future races are as close as Wisconsin, the nomination battle could last well into April. In fact, even if Sen. Kerry racks up blowout numbers in a two-way race, he still faces a long campaign: On Super Tuesday, March 2, the Massachusetts senator could sweep all 10 contests with 60 percent of the vote, yet capture just 690 additional delegates, leaving him nearly 1,000 short of his goal.
Aside from questions of sheer mathematics, Sen. Kerry now has to worry about momentum for the first time since his stunning victory in Iowa. Although he tried to downplay the closeness of the Wisconsin primary-"A win is a win," Sen. Kerry insisted on election night-the voters clearly weren't breaking his way in the campaign's final days. Exit polling for Fox News indicated that among voters who made up their minds in the last 72 hours, 53 percent settled on Sen. Edwards while just 22 percent picked Sen. Kerry.
Though Sen. Kerry, in all fairness, won by 5 percentage points, headlines the next morning left little doubt who was the real star of the evening. Reporters showered the Edwards campaign with adjectives ranging from "strong" to "amazing," shifting the spotlight from the front-runner to his "feisty," "surging" challenger.
Sen. Edwards desperately needs such media attention. His campaign is strapped for cash, and buying airtime in Super Tuesday states like New York, California, and Ohio will cost millions. But as Sen. Kerry proved in toppling Dr. Dean, the Democrats' $40 million man, momentum can be even more important than money. A post-Wisconsin bounce could keep Sen. Edwards competitive in California, while he spends his hard-earned cash in states like Ohio (where his populist, protectionist message is expected to play well) and Georgia (where his opponent's Yankee liberalism may play poorly).
A few wins on Super Tuesday would keep Sen. Edwards well positioned for the following Tuesday, March 9, when voters in four Deep South states take their turn at the polls. With 547 delegates up for grabs that day, Sen. Edwards could mount his first real, multistate challenge to Sen. Kerry, forever banishing the air of certainty that has carried the front-runner through the last dozen contests.
Sen. Edwards needs those states to remain viable. After all, the magic of No. 2 won't work forever. To hit the number he really wants-2,161-he'll have to upgrade to No. 1.