Their rivalry engaged, Democratic presidential contenders John Kerry and John Edwards laid plans on Wednesday for their 10-state showdown March 2. The challenger plans to persist in his criticism of Kerry's free-trade policies, targeting Ohio, New York and Georgia with television ads.
The front-runner will fight Edwards on one front and President Bush on another, advertising in general-election battleground states while counting on arcane Democratic Party rules to protect his lead in nomination delegates.
"Every race is going to be contested. Every race," Kerry said in Ohio, the focal point of his plans to beat Edwards in March and Bush in November. "We're fighting for every vote."
The rhetoric reflected a get-tough attitude in Kerry's camp, victorious in the Wisconsin primary Tuesday but nonetheless stung by Edwards' closer-than-expected second-place finish.
Kerry, winner in 15 of 17 contests and still the undisputed front-runner, failed to push his chief rival from the race. He settled for the departure of Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who quit Wednesday after failing to win a single contest.
The Democratic race makes a pit stop next week in Hawaii, Idaho and Utah -- where just 61 delegates are at stake -- before turning to March 2 and the motherlode of 1,151 delegates, more than half the total needed to claim the nomination.
In Wisconsin, Edwards' debate performance Sunday and his criticism of Kerry's free-trade policies fueled his 11th-hour upswing. The first-term senator assailed Kerry's 1993 vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement and also aired an ad condemning the treaty, without mentioning Kerry's name.
Kerry also took a hit from Bush's re-election team.
Kerry punched back on Edwards' trade criticisms Wednesday after allowing them to go unanswered in Wisconsin.
"He wasn't in the Senate back then," Kerry said in Ohio, coolly alluding to Edwards' relative lack of experience. "I don't know where he registered his vote, but it wasn't in the Senate."
The 19-year Senate veteran said he and Edwards have similar trade records, a reference to the North Carolina senator's support for a China trade deal. Edwards, a trial lawyer who shines in debates, may demand a series of one-on-one forums with Kerry, aides said.
Strategists said trade could be a make-or-break issue in Ohio, a state narrowly won by Bush in 2000 but among the hardest hit by job losses.
Greg Haas, a Democratic strategist in Ohio, said Kerry holds the advantage because of his winning streak and momentum.
"But NAFTA could pay dividends for Edwards here," said Haas, an adviser to Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, who is being courted by Edwards. "He wouldn't need any ads -- just saying the word NAFTA in northeast Ohio is like raising a red cape in the face of a bull."
Kerry's advisers said the March 2 round gives him a chance to campaign and advertise in two states that will be critical to defeating Bush in the fall -- Ohio, which Bush won by less than 4 percentage points after Al Gore pulled out his resources; and Minnesota, a traditionally Democratic state that Gore won by just 2 percentage points.
In the remaining states, Kerry's ad-buying strategy will be dictated largely by Edwards' actions.
Doug Schoen, former President Clinton's pollster, said Edwards' resurrection in Wisconsin has created three problems for Kerry: He can't focus exclusively on Bush, he must delay plans to raise money for the general election, and "there's a risk that NAFTA could strike a vein."
"I believe this is a glitch in Kerry's glide path to the nomination," Schoen said. "But glitches can turn into gorges."
While the front-runner can compete in all 10 states, Edwards has already taken Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut off the table -- a total of 178 delegates and prime Kerry territory.
That puts six states in play -- Ohio, New York, Georgia, Minnesota, California and Maryland. Edwards will spend the bulk of his time in the first three, aides said, focusing on job losses in Ohio and upstate New York and familiar Southern terrain in Georgia.
The NAFTA ad, or something similar, will likely be used, aides said. Boxed in by his pledge to remain positive, Edwards won't criticize Kerry by name in any ads.
Edwards has key endorsements in Baltimore, which could make Maryland a place where he picks up delegates. Minnesota's economy and California's coveted prize of 370 delegates make those states hard to resist.
Edwards' goal is to win two states and a number of delegates March 2, then sweep a four-state Southern round the following week. That would set the stage for a showdown March 16 in Illinois.
Edwards' advisers acknowledge the odds are steep. The task also is made harder by Democratic Party rules that allocate delegates based on the candidates' showing in each congressional district. That means Kerry, who leads Edwards by more than 400 delegates, picks up delegates with every victory -- or loss.
Edwards has failed to win delegates in nine states. Kerry has pocketed them in all 17 contests.
Kerry's team has computed delegate totals based on the assumption that Edwards wins California, Georgia and Ohio in close races, then three of four states March 9. The front-runner would still lead the delegate chase.