John Kerry rolled up big victories in delegate-rich Missouri, Arizona and two other states to solidify his position as Democratic presidential front-runner. John Edwards countered by taking his native South Carolina in a dramatic seven-state contest Tuesday.

Edwards and Wesley Clark were a few hundred votes apart in Oklahoma, with Kerry close behind in the tightest race of the night. It was a critical test for Edwards, who hoped to prove his presidential mettle outside the South, and Clark, who needed a win to stay in the hunt.

Howard Dean earned no wins and perhaps no delegates, his candidacy in peril. Joe Lieberman was shut out, too, and dropped out of the race.

“It’s a huge night,” Kerry told The Associated Press, even as rivals denied him a coveted sweep.

Racking up victories in Missouri, Arizona, North Dakota and Delaware, Kerry dismissed Edwards’ singular win. “I compliment John Edwards, but I think you have to run a national campaign, and I think that’s what we’ve shown tonight,” the four-term Massachusetts senator said. “You can’t cherry-pick the presidency.”

Missouri and Arizona were the night’s biggest prizes, with 129 delegates – nearly half of the 269 pledged delegates at stake Tuesday. An AP analysis showed Kerry winning 66, Edwards 42, Clark five and Al Sharpton one, with 155 yet to be allocated.

Democrats award delegates based on a candidates’ showing in congressional districts, giving Kerry’s rivals a chance to grab a few delegates even in contests they lost.

In nearly every region of the nation, the most diverse group of Democrats yet to cast votes this primary season said they had a singular priority: Defeat President Bush this fall.

“I don’t care who wins” the Democratic primary, said Judy Donovan of Tucson, Ariz. “I’d get my dog to run. I’m not kidding. I would get Mickey Mouse in there. Anybody but Bush.”

In state after state, exit polls showed Kerry dominated among voters who want a candidate with experience or who could beat Bush.

Edwards had said he must win South Carolina, and he did by dominating among voters who said they most value a candidate who cares about people like them.

“It’s very easy to lay out the map to get us to the nomination,” Edwards told the AP, drawing a line from Michigan on Saturday to Virginia and Tennessee next Tuesday.

To the roar of his supporters, Edwards declared, “The politics of lifting people up beats the politics of tearing people down.”

As the votes were being counted in Oklahoma, Clark mused about the future of his candidacy. “This could be over,” he told reporters. “It could be a long way from over, and it could be impacted tomorrow by something we don’t know about.”

In New Mexico, absentee votes released shortly after polls closed showed a three-way race between Kerry, Clark and Dean, but those votes were cast a week ago.

Dean saved his money for a last stand in Wisconsin on Feb. 17, a long-shot strategy that some of his own advisers questioned.

“We’re going to have a tough night,” Dean told supporters as he promised to keep “going and going and going and going – just like the Energizer bunny.”

Said Steve Murphy, who ran Rep. Dick Gephardt’s campaign: “Howard Dean is done.” The list of ex-candidates grows: Florida Sen. Bob Graham dropped out first, then Carol Moseley Braun, Gephardt and Lieberman.

“Today the voters have rendered their verdict and I accept it,” Lieberman said.

Kerry, who just six weeks ago was written off as a candidate, reshaped the race with victories in Iowa and New Hampshire while Dean’s candidacy cratered. “I’ll keep working and fighting until I win the nomination, and then I’ll keep working and fighting until I beat George Bush,” he told the AP.

Kerry is racking up endorsements as he tries to unite the party behind his front-running candidacy. To that end, the 1.2 million-member American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second largest teachers’ union, planned to back Kerry on Wednesday, a senior union official said on condition of anonymity.

Even Democrats who didn’t vote for Kerry appear fairly comfortable with him. Large majorities of voters – ranging from about 70 percent in Oklahoma to more than 80 percent in Delaware – said they would be somewhat or very satisfied if Kerry wins the nomination, exit polls showed.

Nearly half the voters in South Carolina were black and nearly one in six in Arizona were Hispanic, the first contests with sizable minority populations in the primary campaign. In Missouri and Delaware, about 15 percent of the voters were black.

Looking beyond Tuesday, Kerry planned visits to Washington state and Michigan, where polls show him leading Saturday’s caucuses. Edwards and Clark focused on Tennessee and Virginia. All three candidates planned to air ads in the two southern states.

Kerry plans to buy ad time in Washington, D.C., to reach Democratic-heavy northern Virginia, aides said. It’s an expensive market, and it was unclear whether Edwards would have the money to match Kerry ad-for-ad as he did in Tuesday’s states.

Dean, a former Vermont governor, ran out of cash and momentum after finishing third in Iowa and a distant second in New Hampshire. He ran no TV ads in the seven states and intended to stay off the air for a spate of other contests until Feb. 17, when Wisconsin votes.

On a deeply divided staff, some Dean aides were focused on raising money to cover campaign debts, an emphasis that gave a backseat to costly political tactics such as television commercials.

Exit polls also showed that nearly half of voters in five states said they made up their minds within the last week. One in five waited until Tuesday to pick a candidate.

Edwards scored well among whites, older people, the less-educated and voters who called themselves moderate or conservative, according to exit polls in South Carolina.

Kerry and Clark, both Vietnam veterans, had plenty of company. Seven in 10 Oklahoma voters, and nearly that many in South Carolina, said they had served in the military or have somebody in their households who did, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.

In the run-up, 21st graf, a0748

AP-ES-02-03-04 2233EST



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