DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE JOHN KERRY ENDORSED BY GEPHARDT
Brian Snyder  /  Reuters
Rep. Dick Gephardt joins Sen. John Kerry in Flint, Mich., where he endorsed the Democratic front-runner.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/7/2004 12:15:33 PM ET 2004-02-07T17:15:33

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts was set to pick up the biggest prize of the Democratic presidential nomination season so far Saturday as Michigan voters pointed to the state’s caucuses, a contest his closest rivals were skipping in favor of greener pastures in the next two weeks.

Michigan is the largest state to vote to date, its caucuses accounting for 128 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. A daily tracking poll by The Detroit News released Thursday showed Kerry leading former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean by 52 percent to 9 percent, while Dean’s closest competitors, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, had 8 percent and 4 percent, respectively. 

Kerry is virtually unchallenged in all three weekend contests, which also include caucuses in Washington state and Maine. He floated above the fray Friday by focusing his attacks on President Bush and touting endorsements by a fallen rival, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, and by Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

“I’m here today adding my voice to all of yours,” Gephardt told about 200 people in this blue-collar suburb of Detroit, the second small crowd to greet Kerry on Friday.

Few avenues for rivals
Democratic strategists said the day’s developments reflected the dearth of options left for Edwards and Clark. They cannot afford to lose in the South on Tuesday, and Kerry is on a hot streak — winning seven of nine contests. Traditionally, the best way to curb a front-runner’s momentum is with attacks, but voters in the earlier Iowa caucuses punished candidates who went negative.

Clark and Edwards, the two Southern candidates in the race, were spending their time in Virginia and Tennessee, which hold primaries on Tuesday that could vault one of them into a two-man race against Kerry.

Edwards’ campaign accused Clark of taking “a dip into the gutter” with his latest attack, which accused Edwards of repeatedly acting against veterans’ interests, including a vote in 1999 against adding $1.3 billion in funding for the Veterans Affairs Department.

“Senator Edwards blinked,” Clark said in a radio interview in Nashville, Tenn. “He didn’t support our veterans.”

Edwards, campaigning in Bristol, Tenn., said he had always supported veterans, but he got a bit testy when asked whether he remembered casting the votes Clark criticized. “No, of course not. Do you remember every single vote?” he replied.

Edwards’ advisers insisted that he would stick to his promise to run a positive campaign, hoping to duplicate the political magic that propelled him to a surprise second place in Iowa’s caucuses last month.

The most recent poll in Tennessee, conducted Jan. 28-29 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research before Kerry’s five-state victory Tuesday, showed Kerry leading Clark by 31 percent to 22 percent, with Edwards in third at 13 percent. Despite his endorsement by Tennessee native Al Gore, Dean was in single digits.

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There have been no public polls in Virginia, but private polling for the campaigns showed Kerry ahead there.

Virginia: Kerry vs. Edwards
Kerry is the only candidate advertising in the District of Columbia, reaching Democratic-heavy Northern Virginia. Clark remained focused on Tennessee, making Virginia a rare Kerry-Edwards showdown.

Virginia Democrats were to meet Saturday night to hear from the candidates, a chance for Edwards to shine against Kerry.

“He has got to go to that dinner and say, ‘There is a difference between me and John Kerry,’” said Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist who had a falling out with Edwards’ advisers and left the campaign last year.

“If he wants to be the nominee, he has to stop pussyfooting around and act like a nominee instead of somebody who wanted to be John Kerry’s vice president,” Jarding said.

Jennifer Palmieri, a spokeswoman for Edwards, who has said he would not accept a vice presidential nomination, bristled at the get-tough advice.

“John Edwards has a fundamentally different philosophy than Jarding, reporters and other people talk about,” Palmieri said, even as she unloaded on Clark.

“This is what politicians do when they are losing,” she said of Clark’s criticism of Edwards. “They dip into the gutter and throw whatever they find, whether it is true or not.”

Matt Bennett, a spokesman for Clark, called that a “flailing response” from a failing campaign.

Dean guards his resources
Dean, who was considered the front-runner until he failed to win any of the first nine delegate contests, had also already abandoned Michigan, choosing to hoard his resources and time for an all-out push to win the Wisconsin primary on Feb. 17. His campaign reported Friday that it had raised more than $900,000 to finance what could be his last stand.

Slideshow: On the trail

The money, far more than the target Dean set in an e-mail plea Thursday, is “a show of strength from our supporters who clearly want the campaign to go on,” said Tricia Enright, a spokeswoman for Dean.

Dean, who said in his e-mail message Thursday that he would likely be out of the race if he lost in Wisconsin, indicated Friday that if he could not save his campaign, he might be open to being the party’s vice presidential nominee.

Asked by a radio station whether he would accept the vice presidential nomination, Dean said, “I would ... do anything I could to get rid of President Bush. I’ll do whatever is best for the party.”

Washington strong for Kerry
Dean’s aides were bracing for what could be an embarrassing loss Saturday in Washington, the state where mass enthusiasm for his Internet-based outsider campaign first caught fire last summer.

The latest poll of Washington voters, conducted Jan. 27-29 by Elway Research, found Kerry with a dominating lead over Dean of 40 percent to 13 percent. Edwards was third at 11 percent, ahead of Clark, who polled 8 percent.

Between now and the Wisconsin primary, Dean is expected to take hits in a number of the other contests. But he hopes to do well enough in them to build momentum for Wisconsin.

Dean had hoped to stage a campaign event Friday at Lakeshore Technical College in Cleveland, Wis., but heavy snow forced a cancellation.

As his campaign arranged a meeting with health care workers, he met privately with educators and did radio interviews. He also visited a coffee shop, where he touted his plans on matters from health care to trade and sought to drum up votes.

Democrats Abroad
Meanwhile, Kerry swept a Democrats Abroad caucus Friday of U.S. citizens living in Paris, winning more than half the votes of a partisan crowd driven chiefly by its dislike of President Bush.

“I’ll vote for any Democrat who’s nominated — I just want Bush out,” said Amaranth Ehrenhalt, an artist from Philadelphia who has lived in Paris for 40 years. “I’ve never been to a caucus in my life. I came to show my support for the Democrats.”

Kerry won 58.4 percent of the vote to 21.6 percent for Dean and 21 percent for Clark.

More than 500 voters packed the American Church in Paris, which overlooks the banks of the Seine, for the vote to pick delegates to regional and world caucuses of Democrats abroad to be held in Edinburgh, Scotland, in late March. The Edinburgh caucuses will decide the final slate of 22 delegates and two alternates that Democrats abroad send to the national convention.

MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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