msnbc.com news services
updated 1/31/2004 3:24:37 PM ET 2004-01-31T20:24:37

Ahead of make-or-break Tuesday primaries for the Democratic presidential contenders, a new poll showed Sen. John Kerry losing ground to rivals in two states while maintaining comfortable leads in two other states.

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Sen. John Edwards widened his lead over Kerry in South Carolina and Wesley Clark held a slim advantage on Kerry in Oklahoma, according to the tracking poll released Monday by MSNBC, Reuters and Zogby.

Kerry, still benefiting from a surge in momentum after wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, retained commanding leads in Missouri and Arizona.

The Democratic presidential contenders on Monday are targeting key states and swing voters in the closing hours before the biggest campaign test of the season.

Seven states and 269 pledged delegates are in the mix Tuesday and the rivals raced from stop to stop across the country. Kerry targeted all seven, while some candidates looked for targets of opportunity. Kerry continued to collect big-name endorsements.

Kerry ripped over special interests
Howard Dean, the former front-runner, continued to pound Kerry for his financial ties with special interests, saying those links cast doubt on the Massachusetts senator’s claim to be the champion of the battle against those interests.

“He misrepresented himself, grossly misrepresented himself, as a candidate who would take on special interests in Washington,” the former Vermont governor said.

“My record responds to that,” Kerry replied to reporters during a stop Sunday in Fargo, N.D. “I have fought powerful special interests every step of the way.”

Meanwhile, Kerry was continuing to pick up big-name endorsements, winning the backing of the United Farm Workers union and Washington Gov. Gary Locke. Aides said the union’s backing would give Kerry crucial support among Hispanics who are a key constituency in New Mexico and Arizona, both selecting delegates Tuesday.

Washington state holds caucuses Saturday, and Kerry plans to head there and await returns Tuesday night, shifting his focus to the next test.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark focused on Oklahoma, where polls show he has the best shot at pulling off a badly needed win Tuesday night. He was joined by Mike McClintic, who as a 22-year-old private pulled Clark out of gunfire and protected him during a Vietnam firefight. “Mike, you saved my life,” Clark said, shaking his hand at an Oklahoma rally.

Kerry held a similar reunion with Jim Rassmann, a Special Forces officer Kerry rescued in Vietnam.

Edwards was focused on South Carolina, where polls gave him the best chance of scoring a victory. He dismissed suggestions he could join Kerry as a running mate.

“I think you should ask Senator Kerry whether he’s interested in being vice president,” said Edwards, his voice growing hoarse. “You can see I’ve been talking too much,” he added.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman touted the endorsements of newspapers in Seattle and South Carolina. “What this says is I have national support,” he said.

Kerry spent Sunday in North Dakota, fulfilling his pledge to campaign in all seven states holding tests on Tuesday: Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota, Delaware, Missouri, South Carolina and Oklahoma. Together they represent more than 12 percent of the 2,162 delegates needed to claim the Democratic nomination.

Kerry holds comfortable leads in polls in five of the states, and is competitive in the other two — Oklahoma and South Carolina. His hope is a big win Tuesday night that likely would narrow the field.

Many undecided
Kerry’s focus Monday was on New Mexico and Arizona, completing a one-week blitz of the seven states currently in play. Polls show him well ahead in both states, but surveys around the country detect a huge group of undecided voters, clearly large enough to sway the outcome.

“This election has to be about more than words,” said Kerry. “It’s time to have a real conversation in America, it’s time to make our politics meaningful. It’s time to change.”

Dean, the early front-runner, conceded he may not win any of the state’s Tuesday night, and was focusing on Washington and Michigan, which also holds caucuses Saturday.

If Kerry sweeps on Tuesday, it would jeopardize the campaigns of Clark and Edwards, leaving Kerry free to focus on Dean.

Dean and Kerry both opted to skip public financing, meaning they are not subject to spending limits — but are not getting the federal matching money that is flowing to rival campaigns. Dean burned through much of the $41 million he raised hoping to score a knockout in early tests.

“We took an enormous gamble and it didn’t work,” he said Sunday.

Dean said he wasn’t ready to leave the race and was focused on winning delegates. He did say he had no plans to linger on if it became clear the nomination was out of reach.

Medicare & President Bush
Kerry for days has largely ignored his Democratic rivals and focused on President Bush.

Slideshow: On the campaign trail

In his latest assault, he accused the administration of an “incredible cave-in” to drug companies at taxpayers’ expense, citing the dramatically higher cost estimate for the new Medicare overhaul.

The administration now puts the 10-year cost of the prescription drug benefit at $534 billion. That is one-third higher than the $395 billion figure from the Congressional Budget Office that administration officials and GOP congressional leaders cited as they pushed the legislation through Congress in November.

Kerry used the revised Medicare figures to illustrate his campaign theme that the pharmaceutical industry is the main beneficiary of the new drug benefit.

Many of the candidates took a break from campaigning to watch the Super Bowl. Kerry took in the game at a sports bar in frigid Fargo, before flying to New Mexico.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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