updated 2/3/2004 11:25:45 AM ET 2004-02-03T16:25:45

As the Democratic presidential nomination race edges closer to the finish line, NBC’s Washington Bureau Chief and moderator of Meet the Press looks at the importance of Tuesday’s primaries and caucuses -- and beyond.

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MSNBC: Tim, for the first time in a long time it seems the Democratic presidential candidates are drawing on the power of the veterans’ vote -- Decorated vets like Sen. John Kerry and General Wesley Clark making their service an issue while challenging President George W. Bush on his. How big a deal is military service going to be in primary season and then into the general election?

Tim Russert: In the primary season, I think the veterans’ brigade that John Kerry has organized helped him enormously, particularly in states like South Carolina. In a general election, after September 11th, somebody who has national security credentials is important to the voters.

Will they, in fact, look at past military service or their governmental experience? My gut is that voters will look at John Kerry, if he’s the Democratic nominee and George Bush on what they say and do for the security of the United States for the future.

But what has happened this past week is important psychologically. When the Republicans attacked John Kerry for being liberal on defense, the chairman of the Democratic Party punched back and said, “What about George Bush’s military record?”

It was done to fire up the base. There’s been a sense in the Democratic Party that they’ve been too passive in responding to Republican attacks.

MSNBC: It’s a tough issue though, because here you have a commander in chief who has led this country into two wars since taking office – In Afghanistan and Iraq – and you’re going to make military service a major issue in re-election.

Russert: Absolutely. That’s why it’s done for the base.

This is both parties, both candidates taking a measure of each other. It’s basically a warning shot from both sides – if you punch, we’re punching back.

MSNBC: In South Carolina, the latest poll numbers show Sen. John Edwards slightly in the lead of John Kerry, very much in the margin of error there.

Is it safe to say that if John Edwards wins South Carolina, it means a whole lot less than if he loses it?

Russert: Absolutely. It’s quite striking. Where does John Edwards go from here?

But I think the big event Monday was John Edwards began to criticize John Kerry. He said John Kerry took money from lobbyists.

MSNBC: Criticized him, but at the same time said if he didn’t win, he was going to back Kerry.

Russert: No doubt about it. But John Edwards had been running a 100% positive campaign. And I took note yesterday when I heard Edwards say Kerry’s been in Washington a long time, he took money from lobbyists – not harsh criticism, but a different tone then we had heard.

John Kerry countered by saying, “We don’t want someone with on the job training in National Security.

It’s probably best that this debate between Edwards and Kerry end now, for the future of the Democratic Party and the support for the nominee.

MSNBC: If John Edwards wins in South Carolina, people are going to say, “Hey, he was born there. He’s a senator right next door. He should win.” If he loses they’re going to say, “How could he possibly lose there?”

Russert: Yeah. If he loses, he’s finished. If he wins, where does he go from here? That’s the difficult challenge facing John Edwards.

MSNBC: Oklahoma.  Let’s take a look at the numbers -- Wesley Clark with a very small lead – within the margin of error. Can Wesley Clark hurt John Edwards in the South?

Russert: Yes, he can. This would give him momentum, if he wants to stay in the race. But again, where do they go from here. The next challenges are Michigan, Washington State, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin. My sense is if John Kerry wins five or more of the primary or caucuses Tuesday, you’re going to see a dramatic coalescing around him as the potential nominee.

MSNBC: It seems as if Howard Dean’s strategy is to look forward to places like California, Ohio, and New York – big delegate states. But if he gets completely shut out Tuesday, are his supporters going to stick around, especially with money, to keep him going to those states.

Russert: The hunch, the thinking is probably not. Not a lot of them. Some, yes, but not a lot of them.

The key supporters -- organized labor, service employees and the AFSCME unions – what will they do? There are already conversations going on between some of those members and the John Kerry campaign. If Howard Dean is shut out Tuesday, my sense is you’ll see the AFL-CIO labor movement, in unity, start rallying around John Kerry.

MSNBC: Finally… Does it look like a win-win situation for President George W. Bush. He has called for an independent investigation into pre-war intelligence, but the results won’t come in until after the election.

Russert: He’ll very much try to say; any time the issue is brought up, “I’m sorry, that’s being investigated. We shouldn’t be talking about it.” The Democrats will counter, “Hold on Mr. President. You made those decisions. You dragged your feet appointing a commission. This is a legitimate issue to debate.”

I think it will be a critical issue in this campaign.

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