Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's decision to abandon his presidential campaign has created a de facto two-man race for the Democratic presidential nomination; pitting Massachusetts Senator John Kerry against North Carolina Senator John Edwards.
The Kerry campaign got a boost Thursday, when the AFL-CIO, the country's largest labor organization, representing more than 13 million workers, endorsed the Massachusetts Democrat for president. "I believe this country needs a president whose commitment is to make certain that we create the good jobs and keep the good jobs here at home," says Senator Kerry, "and as president, I will do that."
Senator Kerry remains the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, having won 15 of the first 17 primaries and caucuses. But Senator Edwards finished a stronger-than-expected second in Tuesday's Wisconsin primary, boosting the hopes of his supporters that he can compete with Senator Kerry for convention delegates, who will choose the Democratic candidate in July.
One of the major issues emerging in the Democratic primary battle is the loss of American jobs overseas, which labor unions blame on free-trade agreements approved by Congress in recent years.
Senator Edwards is making the jobs issue a major focus as he campaigns around the country. "These were bad trade deals," he says. "Bad for our economy, bad for our workers, and bad for our values. They were wrong, and I was right to vote against them."
Senator Edwards argues that he has been less supportive of trade agreements in Congress than Senator Kerry and is now highlighting that difference in his campaign speeches. Senator Kerry says both men want to see tougher labor and environmental protections written into future agreements.
Political analysts give Senator Edwards high marks for campaigning skills, but most of them say he faces long odds in trying to stop Senator Kerry's march toward the Democratic nomination.
Senator Kerry currently has more than 600 committed delegates, compared with less than 200 for Senator Edwards. A candidate needs 2,162 delegates to clinch the nomination, (from a total of 4,322 delegates).
However, political expert Scott Keeter of George Mason University in Virginia said Senator Edwards should benefit from Howard Dean's departure from the presidential race. "The thing that he does have going for him, though, is that, for all practical purposes now, it is a two-man race," he explained. "And the media attention is going to be focused on that, and Edwards has the benefit of being the underdog, somebody who is creating a lot of positive buzz."
But that "buzz," or public attention, Professor Keeter refers to may not be enough to overcome Senator Kerry's advantages in both organization and fundraising.
The next major test for the candidates will come in the so-called 'Super Tuesday' primaries on March 2, in which 10 states will select more than 1,200 nominating delegates.
Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Los Angeles, said Senator Edwards is running out of time in his race with Senator Kerry. "John Edwards is still very energetic in fighting for the nomination, he said, "but Senator Kerry has a lot of advantages in terms of support from politicians, and, most important, fundraising.
"Had Senator Edwards made this kind of a surge a few weeks ago, he would probably be more competitive today," continued Mr. Pitney. "But it is going to be very difficult for him to catch up with John Kerry, and his chances depend in large part on some large problem or mistake on the part of the Kerry camp."
Most analysts believe Senator Kerry will emerge as the presumptive Democratic nominee in the next two to three weeks, setting up a long general election campaign between the veteran Massachusetts senator and President Bush.