Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry scored victories east and west Saturday, swamping his rivals in Nevada and the District of Columbia caucuses to build his advantage in delegates needed for the nomination. His opponents pinned their hopes on the coming Wisconsin primary to try to slow him down.

Kerry, the only candidate to campaign in Nevada, easily outdistanced Howard Dean in second place, for a Valentine’s Day win that unexpectedly drew thousands of people to the party’s meetings and surprised officials who saw far less enthusiasm four years ago.

Kerry more than doubled his nearest opponent, Al Sharpton, in the D.C. race.

The rout kept Kerry’s head of steam going as the candidates battled for the Wisconsin primary Tuesday. The Democrats converged in Milwaukee for a Saturday night party fund-raising dinner and a debate Sunday.

That primary might be a last stand for Dean, the one-time presumptive favorite winless in the string of 2004 contests. Edwards, who won in his native South Carolina, spoke of his determination to press on into March.

“I’m completely committed to this race,” Edwards said after speaking to hundreds of supporters in a Madison, Wis., ballroom. “I think this process is too fluid to set any kind of arbitrary deadlines” for getting out.

With almost all precincts reporting in Nevada, Kerry had about 63 percent of the vote, with Dean at 17 percent, Edwards at 10 percent and Dennis Kucinich at 7 percent.

Across the country, the full results in the D.C. caucuses showed Kerry with 47 percent; Sharpton, 20 percent; Dean, 17 percent; Edwards, 10 percent; and Kucinich, 3 percent.

“These results show that our campaign is uniting Americans from different parts of our country and walks of life in a common purpose,” Kerry said in a statement of thanks to voters in the district.

Dean prevailed in a D.C. vote last month, before his fortunes sank nationally, but the primary was held to protest the district’s lack of voting representation in Congress and did not count.

Counting early results from Saturday’s caucuses, Kerry increased his delegate count to 559, an AP analysis shows. Dean had 186, Edwards 166, and Sharpton 16. Nomination requires 2,161 delegates. Forty were at stake Saturday.

Even as the nomination fight pressed forward, there was a sense of a larger battle shaping up – the one in the fall between President Bush and the Democratic nominee.

The 13-million-member AFL-CIO, slow to side with a candidate when a true competition is going on, plans to endorse Kerry soon, a sign that a linchpin of the Democratic Party considers the nomination all but settled.

Republican President Bush’s campaign, making Kerry the sole target, distributed an attack video linking the four-term Massachusetts senator to special interests. The Internet launch limited the video’s audience, but the attention surrounding it magnified its impact.

Kerry treated the assault as more evidence that Republicans view him as the front-runner, arguing dismissively: “These guys will try to do anything to change the subject.”

The Democrats plunged into the final weekend before the Wisconsin primary with both Dean and Edwards hungry for a win there to revive their campaigns. Polls offered them little hope. They did not campaign in Nevada or Washington, D.C.

Still, at a breakfast sponsored by black ministers, Dean showed no signs of discouragement. To an audience of more than 200, he said he had bolstered his campaign by turning to traditional Democratic voters.

“We’re going to start with the African-American community,” he said. “We’re going to start with women.

“I’m tired of being divided in this country … by race, by gender, by income or by religion.”

Dean brought two guests to the breakfast, black roommates from his university days at Yale. One, Atlanta attorney Don Roman, sang a hymn to the group that asked: “Why should I feel discouraged?”

Dean once said it would be over if he lost Wisconsin but later modified that position to hold out the possibility he might press on. In his latest version, Dean said he simply didn’t know what would happen to his campaign if he lost.

Edwards, who raised $500,000 in Los Angeles before flying to Wisconsin, said he’s pushing ahead no matter what happens Tuesday.

He is diverting repeatedly from campaigning to raise cash, and aides said he was flush enough to continue. They said Edwards has raised $3.3 million since finishing second in Iowa’s leadoff caucuses.

Kucinich, who has finished in the low single digits in most contests, rallied 200 people in Green Bay, north of Milwaukee. He took jabs at multilateral U.S. trade agreements, promised to provide universal health care and said: “I’m the only person running for president who has a plan to bring our troops home” from Iraq.

AP-ES-02-14-04 2001EST

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