His front-runner status bolstered by dual Southern victories, John Kerry is looking to Wisconsin to dispatch the dwindling field of Democratic presidential rivals still clinging to hope.
Kerry's strong victories in Virginia and Tennessee on Tuesday chased one Southern-bred rival from the race. Wesley Clark of Arkansas ended his bid after dismal third-place showings, while runner-up John Edwards of North Carolina said he would not quit.
As his remaining rivals scrambled for a last-ditch strategy to stop him in Wisconsin, Kerry retreated to his Washington home for two days of rest. He returns to the campaign trail Friday with stops in Wisconsin, which holds a primary next Tuesday, and Nevada, which holds caucuses on Saturday.
Kerry pledged to take it "one step at a time," first clinching the nomination and then targeting President Bush. But he spoke like a front-runner Tuesday night, focusing more than half of his victory speech on the president.
"George Bush, who speaks of strength, has made America weaker — weaker economically, weaker in our health care, weaker in education. And the truth is that he has made us weaker militarily by overextending the armed forces of the United States," Kerry said.
Howard Dean, once the race's high-flying front-runner, finished in single digits in Virginia and Tennessee, having skipped both states to campaign in Wisconsin.
"There's a big election next Tuesday," Dean told teenagers at a youth center in Milwaukee. "And if I win, I've got a good chance of being president. If I don't win, then maybe I won't be president."
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton, both winless, also have indicated that they intend to push on regardless of how well they do in upcoming primaries.
Edwards has just one win to Kerry's 12, but hopes Dean will drop from the race after Wisconsin and leave him as the only viable challenger to Kerry in the Super Tuesday contests on March 2
"We're going to have a campaign and an election, not a coronation," Edwards told a crowd in Milwaukee, where he was stumping for votes in advance of the next big contest on Feb. 17.
But some Democratic leaders are calling for an end to the intraparty battle.
"At some point, perhaps sooner rather than later, I think Democrats need to unify behind John Kerry and refocus on winning in November," said Leon Panetta, who was President Clinton's chief of staff and is not affiliated with any candidate.
For Edwards and Dean, the temptation to stay in the race is strong because Kerry has not been tested by scandal or miscues thus far in the primary season. Kerry's foes also point out that the crowded election schedule has not left much time for voters to take a second look at him.
Kerry has won 12 of 14 contests — seven by nearly half the vote — on the East and West coasts, in the Midwest, the Great Plains and the Southwest. Virginia and Tennessee had 151 pledged delegates at stake.
An AP analysis shows Kerry has piled up more than twice as many delegates as his closest pursuer. Counting results from Tuesday's races, Kerry now has 516 delegates to Dean's 182, with Edwards at 165 and Clark at 105. A total of 2,162 delegates are needed to nominate.
Kerry said it's not up to him to decide whether his foes should stay in the race. Still, his every strategy was designed to dispatch his rivals with Tuesday's triumphs, victory next week in Wisconsin or a nail-in-the-coffin showing when 10 states, including some of the most delegate rich, vote on March 2.
"What we showed today is the mainstream values that I've been talking about, fairness and hope and hard work and love of country, are more important than boundaries and birthplace," the Massachusetts senator told The Associated Press.
Kerry's strong suit was among voters who thought it most important to have a candidate who could win in November — getting two-thirds of that group in Tennessee and three-fourths in Virginia, according to exit polls.
He also pulled two-thirds of the black vote in Virginia and about half that in Tennessee, leading the field in both states. He was not as strong among white voters, however, according to the surveys conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks.
Kerry performed best among those with less education, lower incomes and those who are Democrats. In Virginia, Republicans, as well as independents, could vote in the Democratic primary.
"Anybody but Bush," said Charles Edwards, 50, of Falls Church, Va., who decided to vote for Kerry as he entered the voting booth. "I'd vote for the devil."