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Kerry Now Looks Like Leading Contender for Democratic Presidential Nomination - 2004-02-05

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry appears to be in a strong position to win the Democratic Party's presidential nomination after winning five of seven contests on Tuesday. At least two of Senator Kerry's Democratic rivals did well enough on Tuesday to fight another day.

With five victories across the country Tuesday, the Kerry campaign is now trying to foster the idea that it is inevitable that the Massachusetts senator will be the Democratic nominee and face off against President Bush in the November election.

Exit polls indicate Senator Kerry's success in the primaries and caucuses so far is tied to the belief among many Democrats that he will be the strongest candidate to go up against the president in November.

It was a point Senator Kerry made again in an interview with CBS television. "I'm the only Democrat who today, in four separate polls on a national level, is beating George Bush today," he said. "And I think that is why people are uniting around my candidacy and that is why I think, in the next days, I will continue to move towards the nomination."

But victories by Senator John Edwards in the South Carolina primary and by retired General Wesley Clark in the Oklahoma primary allow both of them to fight on for the nomination, at least for a while.

Senator Edwards continues to emphasize his relatively short tenure in Washington, insisting he is an outsider compared to Senator Kerry, as he did in an interview with CBS. "I think we offer the American people very different choices," he said. "And I think what I bring is somebody who comes from that kind of background and has new ideas about how to solve America's problems."

Most political analysts believe Senator Kerry is well positioned to wrap up the Democratic nomination within the next month, provided there are no major stumbles. "I think Kerry looks like a pretty solid frontrunner," said analyst Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes an influential political newsletter here in Washington. "He has demonstrated an ability to win races around the country, except in the south where he hasn't won anything and he is obviously weaker. But when you look past Tennessee and Virginia [primaries on Feb. 10] and you look at Michigan and Washington State [contests on Feb. 7] and you look to the March 2 primaries [10 primaries], I think Kerry has the momentum and I think he is well suited to run in lots of these states."

But even voters who support Senator Kerry over Senator Edwards acknowledge that Senator Edwards may be the best campaigner among the six Democrats left in the race.

Fro University of Virginia expert Larry Sabato, the Edwards victory in South Carolina Tuesday and his strong second-place finish in Oklahoma is breathing new life into his campaign. "John Edwards is such a good campaigner, though, that you don't want to rule out that slim possibility that someway, somehow, he will find a way to capture the prize and snatch it away from Kerry," he said.

Senator Edwards will have his best chance to build momentum on Tuesday in primaries in Tennessee and Virginia where he can make the most of his appeal to southern voters.

But analyst Stuart Rothenberg is doubtful that either Senator Edwards or General Clark will be able to do much to build on their primary wins from Tuesday.

"But I don't think either one has momentum," he said. "And not only that, they both seem to appeal to more moderate to conservative, rural white voters and as political outsiders, their message is more of a non-establishment message. So that puts them against each other while John Kerry is solidifying support in the rest of the party. So in a sense the fact that both of them are alive hurt each one of them."

The next major test for the Democratic presidential field comes on Saturday and Sunday when Michigan, Washington State and Maine hold caucuses.

Most experts believe the Democratic nominee will become clear by March 2, when ten states, including the large states of California, New York and Ohio, select convention delegates.