John Kerry looks tough to beat in five Democratic presidential contests Tuesday, party strategists say, with dreams of a decisive sweep hinging on two states — South Carolina and Oklahoma.
The results of those two races may determine whether Kerry delivers a knockout punch, or a glancing blow. He would like to chase Wesley Clark and John Edwards from the race Tuesday, then finish off a staggering Howard Dean four days later in Michigan.
The senator's chief of staff, Mary Beth Cahill, said odds were against a sweep.
"It has never happened, somebody winning everything. There is no precedent for that," she said. "So I think it's extremely unlikely." Seeking to lower expectations, other aides said Kerry would be pleased with a few victories and a bulk of the 269 delegates up for grabs Tuesday.
Kerry, who won opening-round contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, hopes that his momentum overcomes the $11 million in advertising that Clark, Edwards and Dean poured into the seven states while he was off the air, fighting for survival in Iowa.
Heading into a frantic weekend of campaigning, public polls showed the Massachusetts lawmaker with a commanding lead in Missouri, Arizona and North Dakota — states with 143 delegates at stake. But pollsters working for the campaigns said the race was tightening in Missouri and Arizona.
Public polls were mixed in South Carolina, with one showing Kerry and Edwards tied and another giving the North Carolina senator a lead. Internal campaign polls showed Edwards slightly ahead in the chase for 45 delegates.
In Oklahoma, where 40 delegates are up for grabs, polls showed Kerry, Clark and Edwards locked in a three-way race.
Party strategists and polls gave Kerry the edge in New Mexico (26 delegates) and Delaware (15).
Experts in every state had a word of caution. "Though Kerry looks awfully strong, there are still enough undecided voters to make things interesting everywhere," said Tom Dickson, chairman of the North Dakota Democratic Party.
For his part, Kerry sounded comfortable and confident Saturday, even taunting the Bush White House with the thought of facing him in the fall.
Before some 700 supporters in Kansas City, he said, "All those lobbyists. All those powerful interests that meet in secret in the White House. They hear us coming."
The candidates and their plans:
* Edwards acknowledges that he must win South Carolina, the state where he was born. The first-term North Carolina senator hopes to emerge as Kerry's singular rival, which he would certainly do by winning Oklahoma and exceeding expectations in Missouri, New Mexico and Delaware. He has matched Kerry ad-for-ad in key states. Kerry advisers see Edwards as their biggest threat.
* Clark, a retired Army general, has gotten little thus far for his $2.3 million in South Carolina advertising. His stock has fallen in Arizona and New Mexico, too, but he remains strong in conservative Oklahoma. "There's a question of whether Kerry's momentum will become a big factor," said Don Hoover, an Oklahoma strategist. Clark needs a win, maybe two, to set the stage for a Kerry v. Clark race. His aides acknowledge that's a tall order.
* Dean, the former front-runner, is next week's wild card. He limped out of New Hampshire after two-straight Kerry victories and fired his campaign manager. Nearly broke, Dean pulled his ads off the air and curbed his travel to Tuesday's states. Strategists say he can contend in New Mexico's caucuses and pick up delegates elsewhere. Dean is hoping that Clark and Edwards fall out of the race Tuesday, leaving him to fight a war of attrition with Kerry. The risk is that Kerry gains momentum and becomes unstoppable after Tuesday, or that Edwards emerges as Kerry's chief rival. Dean needs to win next Saturday in Michigan, where Kerry was poised Saturday to pick up an endorsement from Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
* Sen. Joe Lieberman lags in polls, but has worked hard in several states, particularly Delaware.
* Al Sharpton could be a factor in South Carolina, drawing more black voters than pollsters predict. State strategists say those votes likely would come from Kerry.
Cahill sounded both confident and cautious when she discussed Kerry's plans through the Democratic nominating convention in Boston.
"We're competing everywhere. We want to pick up delegates and we want to be extremely strong as we head into Boston," she said. "But we don't expect to win everywhere."