updated 2/9/2004 1:50:40 PM ET 2004-02-09T18:50:40

Democrat Howard Dean, in a last-ditch appeal, urged Wisconsin voters on Monday to ignore the media and opinion polls that herald presidential front-runner John Kerry and use “the power to choose the strongest candidate to beat George W. Bush.”

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Recalling Wisconsin progressives past and present — Robert LaFollette, William Proxmire and Sen. Russell Feingold — Dean told voters, “the media claims this contest is over. They say your voice and your vote don’t count. They expect you to rubber stamp the choice of others. But you don’t have to listen to them.”

The one-timer front-runner said Wisconsin, which votes Feb. 17, has the “power to keep this debate alive. You have the power to choose the strongest candidate to beat George W. Bush.”

Rivals John Edwards and Wesley Clark focused on the loss of U.S. jobs as they campaigned for Southern primary votes in Tennessee and Virginia a day before Tuesday’s contests. More than just 151 pledged delegates were at stake in the two states; the candidates were counting on renewed political life against front-runner John Kerry, who ran his record to 10 wins in 12 contests with a three-state weekend sweep.

In tiny Morrison, Tenn., Edwards met privately with Carrier Corp. factory workers who found out last week that the plant was closing, eliminating 1,300 jobs. He said after the meeting at a barbecue restaurant near the plant that the workers deserve to have a president “who understands, who knows what their lives are like” and that President Bush is out of touch.

“The president we have now does not understand what these folks are going through. He does not understand what is going on in the lives of most Americans,” Edwards said.

Clark's top issue: jobs
Clark told supporters Monday in Union City, Tenn., that jobs were his top issue.

“People are struggling in this country, and I think it’s a moral outrage,” Clark said. Calling himself the Democrat uniquely qualified to improve the economy, he said, “I’m strong enough and I’m tough enough to make things happen, and I’ve proved it on the battlefield.”

Neither Edwards nor Clark — nor one-time front-runner Howard Dean — could match Kerry’s advantage in Maine, which held its caucuses Sunday with 24 delegates at stake.

Kerry outpaced Dean by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in the state, with Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio a distant third. Dean and Kucinich had made 11th-hour appeals to Maine voters. The win there came after Kerry’s triumphs in Michigan and Washington state a day earlier.

Kerry has more than twice as many delegates as his closest pursuer, as his win in Maine pushed his total to 426, compared with Dean’s 184, according to an Associated Press tally. It takes 2,162 delegates to win the nomination. Kucinich appeared to fall just short of qualifying for delegates in Maine.

Kerry’s winning streak is beginning to demoralize his opponents. Aides to both Clark and Edwards said they expect their candidates to lose Tuesday in Virginia and Tennessee.

Kerry gained more support on Monday when he won the endorsement of West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, whose state doesn’t hold its Democratic primary until May 11. Kerry was also backed by another major union, the 180,000-member Amalgamated Transit Union, the largest labor organization representing U.S. transit workers.

Edwards picks up a new endorsement
Edwards picked up the endorsement of Illinois Rep. Bill Lipinski, an 11-term member of Congress who represents southwest Chicago and its suburbs.

Clark and Edwards, who promised on Sunday to forge ahead despite Kerry’s increasing advantage, are counting on a Feb. 17 showdown in Wisconsin, where the front-runner can expect withering attacks from all his rivals with the potential for a slip-up by the leader.

Looking beyond his Democratic rivals to a matchup with the incumbent president, Kerry issued a statement after his Maine victory vowing that “when the Republican smear machine trots out the same old attacks in this election, this is one Democrat who will fight back. I’ve fought for my country my entire life, and I’m not about to back down now.”

American Research Group polls give Kerry sizable leads in three states: 11 points over Edwards and 12 over Clark in Tennessee; 13 points over Edwards and 18 over Clark in Virginia; and 26 points over Clark and 31 over Edwards in Wisconsin. The margin of error in each poll taken last week was plus or minus 4 points.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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