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Southern Discomfort

National | PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS: After two losses in the South just a week earlier, John Kerry took comfort in decisive wins in Virginia and Tennessee on Feb. 10. One Southerner quickly dropped out, leaving Mr. Kerry with two real challengers-one on the right, one on the left

Issue: "Iraq: The WMD debate," Feb. 21, 2004

Old soldiers never die, as the old saying goes. They just retreat to Arkansas and give up their presidential ambitions. That's the way it goes for Wesley Clark, at any rate. Five months after jumping into his first-ever political race and rocketing to the top of the national polls, the retired general finished third in Tennessee and Virginia on Feb. 10, decimating his Southern strategy and forcing him out of the race.

As Gen. Clark folded up his tattered campaign tents, John Kerry charged ahead into Wisconsin, a left-leaning state where Howard Dean has campaigned almost full-time for two weeks in a last-ditch effort to trip up the front-runner.

And John Edwards? He once thought he could win Tennessee and Virginia, two states that border his home turf in North Carolina. But Tuesday's contests proved conclusively that momentum is more important than the map in an era of front-loaded primaries with little time for face-to-face campaigning. Sen. Edwards finished second in both states, cementing his title as the primary season's perpetual No. 2-and possibly strengthening his resumé for the No. 2 job in national politics.

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Half a year ago-half an eon in political time-Wesley Clark looked like the Great White Hope of the Democratic Party, a moderate, Southern, war-hero alternative to Howard Dean, the far-left front-runner at the time. But like Dr. Dean himself, the retired general proved to be a candidate not yet ready for prime time. He flip-flopped wildly on policy positions, supporting the Iraq War resolution one day, then declaring just 24 hours later that he never would have voted "for this war." Democrats looking for a Dean alternative flocked instead to Sen. Kerry, a far more seasoned politician, leaving the hapless general without a base or a compelling message.

After a skin-of-his-teeth win in Oklahoma on Feb. 3-a state where other candidates had barely bothered to compete-Gen. Clark focused his efforts on Tennessee, arguably the more conservative of Tuesday's primary states. For much of the evening he ran neck-and-neck with Sen. Edwards, his Southern rival, but his eventual third-place finish proved he had no real advantages and no hope of securing the nomination.

Initially, he tried to put the best spin on the evening. "We'll leave Tennessee even more full of hope and commitment than when we began this journey five months ago," he told supporters in a Memphis hotel. "We may have lost this battle today, but I tell you what, we're not going to lose the battle for America's future."

Within hours, however, his own future had changed. Although family members reportedly wanted him to stay in the race, party elders were pushing hard for a quick end to the primary battle, and Gen. Clark had little rationale for defying them. Instead of heading to Wisconsin, site of the next big battle, he slipped off to Arkansas to make a painful announcement.

"Today ... we have decided we're going to end this phase of this journey even more full of hope, and even more committed to building a better America," he told a hometown crowd in Little Rock. "This has been every bit as much a cause as a campaign.... It was a tremendous honor, and it was a call to duty."

Gen. Clark's withdrawal was good news for Sen. Edwards, who wants nothing more than a two-way race between himself and Sen. Kerry. Indeed, had Gen. Clark pulled out one week earlier, the Feb. 10 results might have looked far different. The combined votes for Messrs. Edwards and Clark would have been enough to defeat the front-runner in Tennessee, raising doubts about his electability in the South. But by splitting the votes of more conservative Democrats, the two Southerners handed Sen. Kerry an easy win, and a nearly insurmountable lead in the overall delegate count. (After weekend wins in Maine, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Sen. Kerry could boast one-fourth of the delegates needed to clinch the nomination.)

Indeed, although Sen. Edwards promised on election night that voters would get "a campaign ... not a coronation," his situation looks increasingly grim. To remain viable, he'll need some wins in the 14 primaries looming over the next three weeks, but only one of those contests takes place in his home region. Though his surprise second-place finish in Iowa proved he could run well outside the South, it also proved he needed plenty of face time with the voters to get his message out. With no time left for that kind of retail-level campaigning, he must try to compete with Sen. Kerry on the airwaves-not much of a contest, given the front-runner's advantages in money and momentum.

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