Kerry points campaign South in hopes of Tuesday sweep

Saturday, February 7, 2004

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- John Kerry, virtually unchallenged in three weekend elections, pointed his fast-moving presidential bid south on Friday in hopes of knocking two Democratic rivals from the race. John Edwards' campaign accused Wesley Clark of taking "a dip into the gutter" with his latest attack.

Clark and Edwards, both Southern natives, ignored the weekend caucus states of Michigan, Washington state and Maine to fight it out in Tennessee and Virginia, site of Tuesday's do-or-die contests.

"When it came to deciding between the special interests and our veterans, Senator Edwards blinked," Clark said in a radio interview in Nashville.

The retired Army general said Edwards repeatedly acted against veterans' interests, including a 1999 vote against adding $1.3 billion in funding for the Veterans Administration.

Edwards, campaigning in Bristol, Tenn., said he's always supported veterans but got testy when asked if he remembered casting the votes Clark criticized. "No, of course not. Do you remember every single vote?" Edwards said, detouring from his usually sunny disposition.

In an Associated Press interview, the senator warned Tennesseans to be prepared for "baseless, false attacks."

Kerry, who holds a dominating advantage in delegate-rich Michigan, Maine and Washington state, floated above the fray by focusing his attacks on President Bush and touting endorsements by fallen rival Dick Gephardt and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

"I'm here today adding my voice to all of yours," Gephardt told about 200 people in Warren, Mich., a blue-collar suburb of Detroit.

Democratic strategists said the day's dynamics reflected the dearth of options left for Edwards and Clark. They can't 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 Iowa punished candidates who went negative.

Clark has decided to roll the dice, hoping to nick Kerry and climb over Edwards to emerge as the front-runner's chief rival. Edwards' advisers insist he will 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.

They also heralded the more than $2.6 million Edwards raised in the last three weeks, money he's pouring into Virginia, Tennessee and Wisconsin to slow Kerry. Wisconsin's Feb. 17 primary may be pivotal, the last chance for Kerry's rivals to overtake him, campaign strategists said.

The most recent public poll in Tennessee, conducted before Kerry's five-state victory Tuesday, showed the Massachusetts senator leading Clark with Edwards in third. There have been no public polls in Virginia, but private polling for the campaigns shows Kerry ahead in Virginia.

Kerry is the only candidate advertising in the District of Columbia, reaching Democratic-heavy northern Virginia. Clark is focused on Tennessee, making Virginia a rare Kerry-Edwards showdown. Kerry left Michigan for a weekend of campaigning in Virginia and Tennessee.

Virginia Democrats meet Saturday night to hear from the candidates, a chance for Edwards to try 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' team 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."

Edwards has said he would not accept a vice presidential nomination. His spokeswoman bristled at the get-tough advice Edwards is getting from many quarters.

"John Edwards has a fundamentally different philosophy than Jarding, reporters and other people talk about," Edwards spokesman Jennifer 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."

Clark spokesman Matt Bennett called that a "flailing response" from a failing campaign.

Looking ahead to the fall, Kerry intends to use the Saturday event to preview a new line of criticism against Bush. He will compare mainstream America with Bush's "extreme administration," and outline White House policies to support the argument, aides said.

While Kerry sought to dispatch Edwards and Clark in the southern races, Howard Dean camped out in Wisconsin. The former front-runner sent mixed signals on whether he would accept the vice presidential nomination, at first saying yes and then backing away.

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