President Bush and Democratic front-runner John Kerry sparred on Monday over the president's economic leadership, while Kerry's rivals sought to slow his brisk pace toward the Democratic nomination in three states with upcoming primaries.
John Edwards and Wesley Clark searched for upset wins in two Southern states and Howard Dean beseeched Wisconsin voters "to keep this debate alive."
But Dean said that, despite earlier statements that he viewed the Feb. 17 primary as a do-or-die contest, he would stay in the race regardless of the outcome. "I've just changed my mind," he said.
As Edwards and Clark concentrated on Virginia and Tennessee, which hold primaries Tuesday, Kerry ignored his rivals and criticized Bush stewardship of the economy.
Kerry accused Bush of having the worst jobs record of the past 11 presidents. Bush defended his economic priorities, especially his tax cuts, in a campaign-style speech in Missouri, expected to be a key battleground in November.
The president denounced efforts by "some in Washington" against making his tax cuts permanent. "When you hear people say, `We're not going to make this permanent, ' that means tax increase," Bush said at a factory in Springfield, Mo.
"They're going to raise the taxes and increase the size of the federal government, which would be bad for the United States economy," Bush said, his voice rising to a shout.
Speaking six days after Kerry won the Missouri primary, Bush appeared more engaged in his own re-election campaign than in past public appearances, directly responding to criticism by Kerry and other Democratic candidates.
The Democrats running for president say they would repeal all or portions of Bush's tax cuts. Stephanie Cutter, a spokeswoman for Kerry, said he would make permanent tax cuts for the middle class, including the child tax credit and the repeal of the marriage penalty.
Before an audience in Roanoke, Va., Kerry scorned a White House economic report released earlier in the day that predicted the economy would grow by 4 percent and create 2.6 million new jobs this year.
"I've got a feeling this report was prepared by the same people who brought us the intelligence on Iraq," Kerry said, citing job losses of more than 2 million since Bush took office. The Massachusetts senator also faulted Bush for policy failures on North Korea, AIDS, global warming and the Middle East peace process.
Edwards and Clark hoped strong showings in Tennessee and Virginia would eliminate the other and turn the race into a two-man contest with Kerry, but polls showed Kerry well ahead in both states.
Dean, the former Vermont governor and one-time Democratic front-runner, urged Wisconsin voters to prove the polls and the media wrong and use their "power to choose the strongest candidate to beat George W. Bush."
"The media claims this contest is over. They say your voice and your vote don't count. They expect you to rubber stamp the choice of others. But you don't have to listen to them," Dean told about 300 people at a downtown Madison hotel.
Dean began a two-day tour and an aggressive advertising campaign in Wisconsin, a state he told supporters last week he must win to keep his candidacy alive. But on Monday, he said his backers had persuaded him to stay in the race regardless of the results. He dismissed his own "obvious contradiction."
Dean also began airing a 60-second biographical spot in some Wisconsin markets, his first advertising buy in the state in months.
Kerry's winning streak — he handily won contests over the weekend in Michigan, Washington state and Maine — was clearly taking a toll on his competitors. Aides to both Clark and Edwards said they expect their candidates to lose Virginia and Tennessee, even though both had earlier been optimistic about winning in their home region. A total of 151 pledged delegates are at stake in the two states.
Edwards and Clark each have one win apiece, while Kerry has won 10 of the 12 contests thus far. Kerry has more than twice as many delegates as Dean, his closest pursuer — 426 after the contest in Maine on Sunday compared to Dean's 184, according to an Associated Press tally. It takes 2,162 delegates to win the nomination.
Clark and Edwards have vowed to forge ahead until Wisconsin despite Kerry's increasing advantage, hoping for a lucky break or a potential slip-up by the front-runner.
In Morrison, Tenn., Edwards met privately with Carrier Corp. factory workers who found out last week that the plant was closing, eliminating 1,300 jobs. Afterward, he said the workers deserve to have a president "who understands, who knows what their lives are like" and that Bush is out of touch.
"The president we have now does not understand what these folks are going through. He does not understand what is going on in the lives of most Americans," Edwards said.
Clark, on a sweep through six Tennessee cities, told supporters in Union City, Tenn., that jobs were his top issue. "People are struggling in this country, and I think it's a moral outrage," he said.
Kerry gained more support on Monday with endorsements from West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller and New York Rep. Nita Lowey. Kerry was also backed by another major labor union, the 180,000-member Amalgamated Transit Union, the largest labor organization representing U.S. transit workers.
Another union, the 1.5 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, officially reversed course and withdrew its support of Dean. The union said it was turning its efforts to the fall campaign and unifying the Democratic Party.
Edwards was endorsed by Illinois Rep. Bill Lipinski, an 11-term member who represents southwest Chicago and its suburbs.