Cover Story


John Kerry remains the front-runner, but because of John Edwards's strong showing in South Carolina and surprise finish in Oklahoma-earning the title "nominee" will have to wait. With another couple of Southern victories, Sen. Edwards could make it a two-man race. For now, he's content to stay alive

Issue: "John Kerry: On a roll," Feb. 14, 2004

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.

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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.


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