updated 2/17/2004 10:26:04 PM ET 2004-02-18T03:26:04

An unusually heavy Republican turnout and a late surge in support from independents helped Sen. John Edwards battle Sen. John Kerry to a close finish in Wisconsin's Democratic primary, an Associated Press exit poll found.

In an open primary on a day with general elections for races including one for mayor in Milwaukee and a casino gambling referendum in Madison, one in 10 voters in the primary described themselves as Republicans — and Edwards won as many Republican votes as did Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean combined. The Republican turnout was the biggest of any Democratic primary so far this year.

Three-quarters of Edwards voters said they'd decided to back him in the last week, while six in 10 Kerry supporters said they decided to do so a month or more ago. Of those who said they decided within the last three days but not Tuesday, half voted for Edwards, compared with less than a quarter for Kerry.

Within the past week, Edwards picked up two newspaper endorsements and got good reviews for a Sunday debate.

Jean Lohr, 40, and her husband Bill Lohr, 50, liked Edwards' positive message.

"He's got a good heart. Kind of like Bill Clinton got us rocking," Bill Lohr said. Added Jean, "Either one of them (Kerry or Edwards) is going to do a better job than Bush has been doing."

Dean, who was trailing, suffered numerous defections, the exit poll found. About one in four voters said they had planned to support Dean at some point during the campaign but wound up voting for someone else. The Dean defectors split evenly between Kerry and Edwards.

"He came across better in the last couple of days, but I'm afraid he shot himself in the foot early on," said Barbara Chamberlain, 79, of Milwaukee, who voted for Edwards.

The results were from a partial sampling of 1,335 voters conducted for the AP and television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. Results were subject to sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, higher for subgroups.

Three in 10 voters described themselves as independent, and they favored Edwards over Kerry, but not as strongly as Republicans did. Still, Kerry won about half the votes of the six in 10 who called themselves Democrats.

Edwards, Kerry and Dean campaigned heavily in Wisconsin leading up to the primary, focusing on job creation, health care and taxes at stops around the state.

Four in 10 voters said the economy and jobs was the most important issue in their vote. That group favored Edwards over Kerry by at least 10 percentage points. About two in 10 picked health care and Medicare, and nearly as many cited the war in Iraq. Kerry won both of those groups easily.

"It's time to put the money back in our country and focus a little less on fixing the world's problems," said Chris Seramur, 42, of Milwaukee, who voted for Kerry because he thought the Massachusetts senator had the best chance of ousting President Bush.

One-third said that in deciding how to vote, they were more focused on finding someone who can oust President Bush than backing a candidate who agrees with them on major issues — a similar result as seen in exit polls in the earlier 2004 primaries.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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