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No Southern Comfort for Edwards?

To: The Editors

From: Lee Walczak

Re: On Wisconsin...The Presidential race now

Date: Feb. 18, 2004

A funny thing happened on the way to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry's supposed coronation in Wisconsin. On the strength of another strong debate performance and the endorsement of Wisconsin's largest newspaper, the affable John Edwards pulled off another of his trademark late surges. By the time the votes were tallied on Feb. 17, he trailed Kerry by only 5.4 percentage points, an unexpectedly strong showing that the Edwards camp promptly declared the moral equivalent of victory.

Now what? Just as a general reality check, it's good to remember that Kerry remains the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination due to his superior organization and a late spurt of campaign donations. But Edwards still promises to make the race interesting. By somehow managing to blend old-time protectionism and New Age optimism in his political Cuisinart, the canny North Carolina senator now poses a threat to Kerry in some key states in the Mar. 2 round of megaprimaries. Chief among them: California, where Edwards' matinee-idol charm will offer a striking contrast to Kerry's ponderous "My fellow Americans, I am channeling JFK" stump style.

GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY. California, with a huge prize of delegates, isn't the only Super Tuesday state where Edwards could trip up Kerry. Georgia also holds a primary that day, and Edwards' potent opposition to free trade and the outsourcing of American jobs could play well there, too.

The problem for Edwards is that while he's aiming for targets of opportunity on Mar. 2, Kerry could be rolling up a huge slug of delegates in Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Ohio.

Edwards' hope has always been to break through on Super Tuesday by showing Democrats that he, rather than an eminently attackable Massachusetts liberal such as Kerry, offers Dems the best hope of upending President Bush. And Edwards has a telling bit of evidence to bolster his sales pitch: In contest after contest, he's vastly preferred by Independents, moderates, and suburbanites -- just the demographic profile you want to capture swing voters in November.

His Wisconsin surge can be explained in part by the state's "open" primary voting process, which allows Republicans and Independents to vote for the Democrats on the ballot. They seemed to have greatly favored Edwards.

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE? The North Carolinian's main obstacles right now are money -- he doesn't have enough to run media campaigns in lots of states at once -- and a diabolical primary calendar. Once upon a time, the Sunbelt states in which an Edwards type could score dominated Super Tuesday. This year, some genius with a degree in political engineering switched things around to the detriment of Dixie. As a result, Kerry-friendly New England dominates the Mar. 2 voting, with Ohio a major state up for grabs. A week later, Texas, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana vote -- states where Edwards ought to clean up.

Given the prospects for a big Kerry night on Super Tuesday, Edwards' momentum could be halted before he gets to the safety of his Southern firewall. If that happens, Democrats will be left to wonder whether party elders' aggressive frontloading and tinkering produced the strongest possible challenger to George W. Bush -- or merely anointed a momentum candidate blessed by Establishment elites.

Walczak is BusinessWeek's Washington bureau chief

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