Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts put a stranglehold on the Democratic presidential nomination Tuesday, sweeping to impressive victories in five of the seven states that held primaries or caucuses in the first national test of potential challengers to President Bush.
In a crowded seven-man field — later chopped to six with the withdrawal of Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut — Kerry collected more than 40 percent of the vote in the Missouri, Delaware and Arizona primaries and in the North Dakota caucuses, according to NBC News’ analysis of the responses of voters who were surveyed as they left polling places. He was also projected to win the New Mexico primary, where he was leading handily in partial returns.
“Well, for the second time in a few days, a New England patriot has won on the road,” Kerry told supporters in Seattle, where he was campaigning for the Washington caucuses on Saturday. “We will take nothing for granted. We will compete everywhere, and in November, with your help, we will defeat George W. Bush.”
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, however, ensured that the Democratic campaign would not yet be a Kerry coronation, easily winning the and almost overtaking retired Gen. Wesley Clark for first place in the Oklahoma primary, which Clark won by only a few hundred votes.
But Kerry added significantly to the momentum he built in winning the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary last month, capturing the biggest prize of the night, Missouri, which offered 74 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
Kerry lapped the field with 50 percent of the vote in Missouri, which became a major prize after home-state Rep. Dick Gephardt withdrew from the race last month. Edwards was far behind, at 25 percent.
“I think it’s fabulous,” Kerry told MSNBC-TV in Spokane, Wash. “I’ll take 50 percent [in Missouri]. We’ll see what happens with the others.”
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who was considered the front-runner for the nomination less than a month ago, essentially wrote off Tuesday’s voting to focus on Saturday’s contests in Michigan and Washington state.
“We are going to have a tough night tonight,” Dean acknowledged in Tacoma, Wash. “But you know what? ... We are going to pick up some delegates tonight, and this is all about who gets the most delegates in Boston in July.”
But Lieberman, who was making his last stand in Delaware, was not so lucky, finishing in a three-way tie there for second, 40 points behind Kerry. He Tuesday night, congratulating Kerry and Edwards on their performances and promising his support to the eventual nominee.
“Now, in this campaign, I may not have shouted the loudest, but I am proud that I took the toughest positions in support of what I believe was right for our great country, even when it wasn’t popular,” Lieberman told supporters in Arlington, Va.
Clark, meanwhile, had hoped to stop Kerry’s surge in Oklahoma, concentrating his efforts there with an eye toward extending the race for at least a few weeks, and possibly into early March. In nearly complete returns, he was projected to beat Edwards by an extremely thin 1,200 votes, both with 30 percent. Kerry ran a few percentage points behind, in third.
“The message [Democrats] sent couldn’t be clearer: America wants a higher standard of leadership in Washington,” Clark said at a late-night victory celebration in Oklahoma City.
"George W. Bush has had three years to keep our country moving forward,” Clark said. “He’s moved it in the wrong direction.”
Edwards managed to blunt at least some of Kerry’s momentum with his powerful victory in South Carolina, where he defeated Kerry by 45 percent to 30 percent.
“You said that the politics of lifting people up beats the politics of bringing people down,” a pumped-up Edwards told shouting and cheering supporters at a victory party at a restaurant in Columbia, the state capital.
“If the American people give me a shot at George Bush next November, I will give them back the White House,” he said, his voice raspy from days of nonstop campaigning.
Kerry downplayed the result, saying he had expected it.
“I haven’t been down there as much,” he said. “Coming in second is enormous given where I’ve been.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton was running third at about 10 percent, which would be by far his best showing of the campaign. But it was likely that he would fall well short of the 15 percent threshold he would need to be apportioned delegates at the Democratic National Convention.
Clark and Dean trailed far behind, at 7 percent and 5 percent, respectively, while Lieberman and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio barely registered in the results.
Pollster John Zogby predicted Tuesday morning that if Clark won in Oklahoma, “then this race continues. Kerry is headed for a very good day — but perhaps short of an excellent one.”
The day’s contests were the first national test for the candidates, who spent almost all of January battling in Iowa and New Hampshire, two largely white and rural states that hosted the first two nominating tests.
Kerry was under pressure to prove that he could win on more unfamiliar terrain in the South and the West, in states with more moderate voters than Iowa and New Hampshire.
While Dean had become more aggressive in recent days, criticizing Kerry’s record on health care in the Senate and his acceptance of special-interest campaign donations, Kerry largely escaped the sort of attacks that Dean faced when he was the front-runner.
Dean, Edwards and Clark hoped to extend the race to March 2, when huge states like New York and California vote. But with his strong showing Tuesday, Kerry said, “the delegate count grows.”