For John Kerry, Oklahoma may be remembered as the one that got away. On Feb. 3, the Sooner State went the latest in awarding its delegates, thanks to a razor-thin margin of less than 1 percent separating the top two candidates. The shock for Mr. Kerry: He was not one of those two.
In all fairness, the Democratic front-runner didn't try very hard in Oklahoma. With only seven days to campaign in seven states, Sen. Kerry, like his challengers, had to pick his battles. Other contests looked more important on paper, and there were tough decisions to be made.
Still, at the end of the night, with retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Sen. John Edwards slugging it out for the top spot in Oklahoma, the Kerry camp had to be wondering whether they had miscalculated. After one of the biggest comebacks in modern political history, their candidate had failed to sweep the Crucial Tuesday states. A second-place finish in South Carolina could be forgiven, in light of the way Sen. Edwards campaigned as a favorite son there. But third place in Oklahoma? It showed there was a limit to how far a candidate could go on sheer momentum. It suggested a Massachusetts liberal might have trouble winning in the South. It meant the race would go on, if only for a few more days.
Not for everyone, however. Early in the evening, Sen. Joe Lieberman became the third Democrat to bow out of the race. After campaigning in Delaware nearly full-time for the past week, the former vice-presidential nominee managed only a dismal 11 percent showing, forcing him to admit that his "mainstream message" had been pushed to the fringe of his own party.
"The judgment of the voters is now clear," Sen. Lieberman told a crowd gathered in Arlington, Va., where he had hoped to compete in the Feb. 10 primary. "For me, it is now time to make a difficult but realistic decision. I have decided tonight to end my quest for the presidency of the United States of America. Am I disappointed? Naturally. But am I proud of what we stood for in this campaign? You bet I am."
What he stood for were centrist, moderate policies-war in Iraq, middle-class tax cuts, religion in public life-that failed to inspire liberal primary voters. Even as he admitted defeat, Sen. Lieberman seemed to warn that the Democratic Party ignored his message at its own peril.
"I offered a mainstream voice and I still believe that is the right choice and the winning choice for our party and our country," Sen. Lieberman said in his concession speech. "Today, the voters have rendered their verdict and I accept it." He indicated he would set aside his battle for moderation and support the eventual nominee.
The verdict was equally harsh for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, though he refused to make an equally graceful exit. The erstwhile front-runner finished no better than third anywhere in the country, and in several states he failed even to poll in the double digits. It was a stunning reversal for the Democrat who seemed poised, just weeks earlier, to sweep aside the competition and roll to an easy nomination.
"We're going to keep going and going and going and going and going just like the Energizer Bunny," Dr. Dean promised the faithful at an election-night rally in Washington, where the Feb. 7 party caucuses offered perhaps his last, best hope for a win. "We're going to pick up some delegates tonight and this is all about who gets the most delegates in Boston in July and it's going to be us."
They were fighting words, but the half-hearted cheer that went up proved few in the room actually believed the boast-if, indeed, the candidate himself did. Without a convincing win in Washington or Michigan, last week's Crucial Tuesday results would likely mark the beginning of the end. The utter implosion of the Dean campaign left two candidates-Wesley Clark and John Edwards-scrambling to emerge as the lone alternative to Sen. Kerry.
Of the two, Sen. Edwards received the bigger boost on Crucial Tuesday. Despite polls predicting a close race, he trounced Sen. Kerry in South Carolina, then surprised the pollsters again with his photo finish in Oklahoma, where Gen. Clark and Sen. Kerry were expected to be the contenders.
With supporters in Oklahoma City chanting "Wes! Wes! Wes!" the retired general thanked his troops at the end of a very long evening. "As an old soldier from Arkansas, I just couldn't be prouder of your support in this first election that I have ever won," he exclaimed when the last precincts finally reported, showing him with a margin of just 1,275 votes over Sen. Edwards.
Still, it was the North Carolina senator's second-place finish that was perhaps the biggest upset of the day. As in Iowa, his last-minute surge captured headlines and boosted his reputation as the one to watch. It also made him the only candidate to notch two wins over the seemingly unstoppable John Kerry.
Win No. 1 came earlier in the evening in South Carolina, where Sen. Edwards wasted no time laying claim to the title of "Most Electable Democrat." He insisted South Carolina was especially significant because it was the one state where the leading Democrats went head-to-head on Tuesday. The results, he said, showed "who can compete in the South, who can win rural voters, and who can do well with African-American voters."
The Kerry campaign disputed the head-to-head claim, noting that the Massachusetts senator made only one visit to South Carolina since his win in New Hampshire a week earlier, while Sen. Edwards made the state his second home. Sen. Kerry's ads were late hitting the South Carolina airwaves, and yard signs began sprouting in earnest just hours before the election.
Sen. Edwards, by contrast, staked his entire campaign on the outcome in South Carolina. His bus, labeled the "Real Solutions Express," toured the state, blaring John Mellencamp's "Small Town" over the loudspeakers at each stop. Again and again he hit his populist themes-jobs, opportunity, and hope-but there was a strain of regional pride, as well. "The South is not George Bush's backyard," he boasted. "It's my backyard. And I'm going to beat him in my backyard."
Despite that home turf advantage, Sen. Kerry managed to make the race competitive thanks to the bounce provided by his back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. "What we've seen is that he's risen in the polls to second place and all that's coming from the momentum from victories, the front-runner status, and the free media he's obtained," said Brad Gomez, a University of South Carolina political scientist.
Indeed, the New Hampshire bounce was evident all across the map last week. From North Dakota to New Mexico, undecided voters went heavily in favor of the front-runner. That phenomenon was especially evident in Missouri, a crucial swing state long ceded to 14-term Rep. Dick Gephardt of St. Louis. When Rep. Gephardt dropped out of the race following his fourth-place finish in Iowa, the state's 74 delegates-the richest prize of Crucial Tuesday-were left up for grabs.
"Everyone was caught off guard when Gephardt dropped out of the race so early," said David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "The other candidates really had nothing set up for Missouri. They only had a week or two to try and start almost from scratch. It takes a lot of money and a lot of organization and after Iowa and New Hampshire many of the candidates are basically broke."
So while the national news media flocked to the Show Me State, there were scarcely any sightings of the leading contenders. Even a proposed debate scheduled for the night before the election was canceled for lack of interest.
Sens. Kerry and Edwards made quick visits to the state's two largest cities, picking up endorsements from popular local politicians. Dr. Dean's only appearance was a hastily scheduled town hall meeting to blast President Bush's education plan in St. Louis, the same city where the president had touted the success of the No Child Left Behind Act earlier this year.
With little else to go on, Missouri voters seemed to rally around the perceived leader. Polls taken six days before the primary placed Sen. Kerry at 25 percent, with 35 percent of voters still undecided. By Election Day, Sen. Kerry's support had doubled-despite his lack of campaigning in the state-and the vast majority of undecided voters broke in his favor.
"Edwards could have done more here," Mr. Kimball concluded. "Given his background and populist message, at least in the out-state regions, his message may have appealed to Democrats here. One of his strengths is that he's able to connect well in a room of people, but after the first couple of primaries it becomes primarily a media campaign."
If anyone can wage an effective media campaign against Sen. Kerry, it would seem to be the telegenic Sen. Edwards. But TV commercials cost money, and money flows to winners. To attract the cash he needs to compete nationally, Sen. Edwards needs wins in Virginia and Tennessee, two more Southern states with primaries slated for Feb. 10. But Sen. Kerry, with his bigger war chest and considerable family fortune, is not about to concede the South. His campaign announced immediately it would woo Virginia voters with TV ads in the high-priced Washington, D.C., media market-which reaches the liberal Northern Virginia suburbs-a move the Edwards campaign might not be able to afford.
Sen. Edwards has other worries, as well. His Southern strategy is risky as long as another Southerner, Gen. Clark, remains in the race. Both men will compete heavily in Tennessee and Virginia, potentially splitting the more moderate vote and allowing Sen. Kerry to make a strong showing.
Then there's the calendar. Upcoming primaries in the West and Midwest don't seem to favor Sen. Edwards, so even with a sweep on Feb. 10, he could face three long weeks of losses in places like Wisconsin, Nevada, and Idaho. Georgia votes on Super Tuesday, March 2, but it's another week before voters in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida go to the polls. By then, Mr. Kerry could well have piled up the 2,161 committed delegates he needs to secure the nomination.
To stop the Kerry juggernaut, Sen. Edwards needs to win outside the South, proving he's a viable national candidate. One surprise loss like that could derail the front-runner, whose main attraction with many Democrats is his air of inevitability.
A stubborn Howard Dean could also help prolong the nomination battle, improving Sen. Edwards's chance of surviving an unfriendly calendar. If Dr. Dean stays in the race as a "message candidate"-winning a few delegates here and there without actually winning any states-he may be able to keep Sen. Kerry short of the magic number. Democratic primaries are not winner-take-all affairs: Party rules stipulate that delegates are awarded on a proportionate basis, according to a candidate's performance in each primary. That means even losers don't walk away empty-handed. Indeed, despite his embarrassing showing on Tuesday, Dr. Dean picked up a handful of delegates that would otherwise likely have gone to Sen. Kerry.
Still, for all the number-crunching and what-if scenarios, one fact became inescapably clear on Feb. 3: The nomination is Sen. Kerry's to lose. At this point, even a flawless campaign by any of his rivals may be too little, too late. By the end of the month, the "good old days" in South Carolina might be a fond memory, a high-water mark. Like the day before the primary, when the Edwards campaign bus pulled onto a college campus and parked in an area usually reserved for administrators. "Spot reserved for the president," read the sign-as if to emphasize what might have been.
-with reporting from John Dawson in South Carolina and Dan Perkins in St. Louis