- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

Democratic front-runner John Kerry attended church services in Virginia yesterday, trying to tap into the Southern vote after picking up the endorsement of Gov. Mark Warner.

The Massachusetts senator coasted to victory in the day’s only caucuses in Maine — where, with 40 percent of the vote counted last night, he had 3,373 votes (46 percent) to 1,882 (26 percent) for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean — but his sights clearly were set on the South.

Tomorrow’s Virginia and Tennessee presidential primaries are considered the big prize, testing whether Mr. Kerry can win in the more conservative South after his second-place showing in last week’s South Carolina contest.

Mr. Kerry goes into the South after sweeping most of the early nominating contests — including Saturday’s Michigan and Washington caucuses — and drawing an infusion of campaign money and a wave of endorsements.

In announcing his endorsement, the Democratic Mr. Warner praised Mr. Kerry’s record of military service and his expertise in national security.

“He knows that the war on terror is fought not only abroad but at home as well,” the governor said.

Mr. Kerry took the opportunity to highlight his background as a decorated Vietnam veteran and questioned whether President Bush had fulfilled his Vietnam-era commitment to the National Guard.

“Just because you get an honorable discharge does not in fact answer that question,” he said.

Mr. Kerry insisted that he was not making a political issue of Mr. Bush’s Vietnam-era service, saying he had no trouble with the “many people” such as Mr. Bush who served in the Guard to reduce the odds of seeing combat in Vietnam.

Although he is the undisputed front-runner, Mr. Kerry still faces determined challenges from two Southern opponents — North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who handily beat him in South Carolina, and Wesley Clark of Arkansas, a retired Army general who won Oklahoma.

Mr. Edwards also spoke at several Virginia churches yesterday where he touted a humble background. He said in television interviews that he expects to do well in Virginia and Tennessee.

“I view this very much as a long-term process, and we’re in this for the long term,” he said. “My hope and expectation is to finish in the top two in these two states, then to go on to Wisconsin and do well, where we’ve been campaigning.”

Mr. Clark moved on to Tennessee yesterday after campaigning in Virginia on Saturday.

Mr. Clark drew distinctions with his Democratic rivals on taxes and warned that he’s the only presidential candidate tough enough to challenge the Republican “mean machine.”

Mr. Clark was expected to travel to Wisconsin for a jobs forum, stressing his view that the country needs a fairer tax system and touting his Army record and what he says is his toughness.

The only major candidate who has avoided vigorously campaigning in the south — Mr. Dean — spent the day stumping in Maine, where 24 delegates were at stake.

The former Vermont governor said Mr. Kerry has a long way to go to clinch the nomination.

“I don’t think Democrats are ready to choose just yet,” Mr. Dean said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “With 15 percent of the delegates selected, that is not exactly a mandate.”

As for the remaining long-shot candidates, the Rev. Al Sharpton spent the day attending church in Richmond, while Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich chose not to campaign in Virginia.

Democratic leaders in Virginia were predicting a big voter turnout for tomorrow’s primary but not a clear winner.

“Virginia is an incredibly diverse state. Urbanized Northern Virginia and areas around Richmond would be favorable to Kerry. On the other hand, the Tidewater areas, where this is a large military concentration, are favorable to Clark, and the balance of Virginia favorable to Edwards,” said Democratic state Chairman Kerry Donley.

“Clearly, though, Kerry has a tremendous amount of national momentum behind him,” Mr. Donley said.

The contest looked tighter in Tennessee, where party officials said all three candidates were bunched together.

“I’m calling the primary the Tennessee Thunderdome. Three major candidates are coming in, and only one or two will be left standing when it’s over,” said Randy Button, Democratic state chairman. “This is going to be a big test. This is going to be a special place to see how well the Democrats can perform” in the South.

“But I think it’s going to be very tight, and we don’t expect a winner to be called until very late,” he said.

A week ago, polls showed Mr. Kerry leading in the state before his big victory in last Tuesday’s primaries.

Both Mr. Edwards and Mr. Clark are staking their campaigns on what happens tomorrow, thinking that if they are to slow or stop Mr. Kerry’s campaign juggernaut it will have to be in the South, where their support is strongest.

The next Southern primary, Georgia, won’t be until March 2, followed by primaries in Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi on March 9, but by then most Democratic officials said the race will be over.

“This is a very fluid race. It looks like it’s narrowed down to two or maybe three candidates. And I think it’s two; it’s myself and Senator Kerry,” Mr. Edwards said at a news conference after a speech in Nashville last week.

President Bush swept all of the South against Vice President Al Gore in 2000, and Democrats in the region said yesterday that carrying Southern states remains an uphill climb for their party. Some said if Mr. Kerry is the nominee, he will need to put a Southerner on the ticket.

“Mr. Kerry brings a lot to the table in terms of leadership ability and his military record. If there is a Southerner on the ticket [with him], that will carry a lot of weight,” Mr. Button said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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