Kerry holds advantage on brink of Tuesday's seven-state primary

Sunday, February 1, 2004

WASHINGTON -- John Kerry looks tough to beat in five Democratic presidential contests Tuesday, party strategists say, with dreams of a decisive sweep hinging on two states -- South Carolina and Oklahoma.

The results of those two races may determine whether Kerry delivers a knockout punch or a glancing blow. He would like to chase Wesley Clark and John Edwards from the race Tuesday, then finish off a staggering Howard Dean four days later in Michigan.

The senator's chief of staff, Mary Beth Cahill, said odds were against a sweep.

"It has never happened, somebody winning everything. There is no precedent for that," she said. "So I think it's extremely unlikely." Seeking to lower expectations, other aides said Kerry would be pleased with a few victories and a portion of the 269 delegates up for grabs Tuesday.

Heading into a frantic weekend of campaigning, public polls showed the Massachusetts lawmaker with a commanding lead in Missouri, Arizona and North Dakota -- states with 143 delegates at stake. But pollsters working for the campaigns said the race was tightening in Missouri and Arizona.

For his part, Kerry sounded comfortable and confident Saturday, even taunting the Bush White House with the thought of facing him in the fall.

Before some 700 supporters in Kansas City, he said, "All those lobbyists. All those powerful interests that meet in secret in the White House. They hear us coming."

The candidates and their plans:

Edwards acknowledges that he must win South Carolina, the state where he was born. The North Carolina senator hopes to emerge as Kerry's rival, which he would certainly do by winning Oklahoma and exceeding expectations in Missouri, New Mexico and Delaware.

Clark, a retired Army general, remains strong in Oklahoma. He needs a win, maybe two, to set the stage for a Kerry v. Clark race. His aides acknowledge that's a tall order.

Dean, the former front-runner, limped out of New Hampshire after two straight Kerry victories. Dean is hoping that Clark and Edwards fall out of the race Tuesday, leaving him to fight a war of attrition with Kerry.

Sen. Joe Lieberman lags in polls, but has worked hard in several states, particularly Delaware.

Al Sharpton could be a factor in South Carolina, drawing more black voters than pollsters predict. State strategists say those votes likely would come from Kerry.

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