MIDDLETON, Wis. -- Senator John F. Kerry fought off a surprise surge last night by Senator John Edwards, who captured support from independent voters in the Wisconsin primary to finish on the heels of the Democratic front-runner and effectively narrow the race to two contenders.
Howard Dean came in a distant third, dashing his long-shot hope of salvaging a sinking campaign. It appeared many voters made up their minds in the final days, with independents breaking toward Edwards while Kerry remained the favorite of Democrats.
The unexpectedly strong showing by Edwards firmly established him as the sole alternative to Kerry, altering the dynamic of the Democratic race just as President Bush began to intensify his reelection bid and his campaign advisers sharpened their attacks on Kerry.
"Today, the voters of Wisconsin sent a clear message," Edwards said at his postprimary celebration. "The message was this: Objects in your mirror may be closer than they appear."
Kerry, however, said he was untroubled by the close finish. "A win's a win," he said.
The outcome set the stage for a duel of opposites heading into the key contests on March 2 -- pitting a seasoned Northeasterner with a strong background in national security against a freshman senator from the South running a populist campaign focused on the economy and trade.
Dean's next move remained uncertain; he had once described Wisconsin as a make-or-break state, then abruptly reversed himself. After weeks of losses and an exodus by senior staff, the former Vermont governor went to Burlington to decide his next move.
Eagerly anticipating a two-man race, Edwards spent the day asserting the differences between his outlook and Kerry's during campaign stops in working-class Milwaukee neighborhoods. He planned to capitalize immediately on the momentum of last night's results, traveling to New York for a fund-raiser tonight before setting off on a five-state swing through the ones with contests on "Super Tuesday," March 2.
"Voters will get a better sense of who we are and what the differences are between us," Edwards said, arguing that the winnowed field will allow voters to focus on himself and Kerry. Although the Rev. Al Sharpton and Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio remain in the race, neither has won a primary contest or enough delegates to present a serious challenge.
Edwards fared better than Kerry among independents and people who made up their minds in the final days, as well as among Republicans, who were allowed to participate under Wisconsin primary rules. Kerry beat his rivals among registered Democrats.
Edwards's strategists have hoped for a one-on-one matchup with Kerry from the start, certain that the former trial lawyer from North Carolina can outshine the Massachusetts senator on the campaign trail and convince voters he would be more competitive against a Republican in the South. Edwards has also loudly declared his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, the treaty Kerry voted for in 1993, which many in the manufacturing industry blame for a recent spike in job losses.
And in yesterday's primary, voters said they were most worried about the economy and jobs, according to exit polling data. Health care came next, with Iraq cited by 2 out of 10 voters. And three-quarters of the voters said they believed free trade is the cause for jobs moving overseas.
Despite his agreement with voters on that issue and his strong showing yesterday, Edwards still faces an uphill battle for the nomination. According to recent polls, he is running behind Kerry in Georgia, the next primary contest in a Southern state. And Kerry holds all the built-in advantages of first place, including the ability to act as if he were already the nominee.
Even before the polls closed in Wisconsin yesterday, Kerry had enough confidence in his success to ignore his rivals for the nomination and instead challenge President Bush, accusing him of "walking away" from veterans. The remark triggered a swift response from the president's reelection team, suggesting the general election is underway.
"This is not a conservative Republican administration; this is an extreme, radical administration," Kerry said during a daytime campaign stop.
"John Kerry's attacks on the president are not supported by the facts and his own record," the Bush campaign declared in a quickly prepared statement.
Kerry and his advisers had privately hoped for a margin of victory of 10 percentage points or more in Wisconsin, believing that it would show great strength over Edwards's candidacy and probably help knock out Dean, several campaign officials said last night.
In a sign of his campaign's confidence going forward, Kerry planned to take off at least tomorrow afternoon through Sunday morning, and has half-joked recently about traveling to the warm climes of Hawaii in advance of its Feb. 24 primary -- a sign that he can afford to expend campaign time on that long flight.
Last night, Kerry headed to Wisconsin's capital to shake hands with supporters and voters. He shrugged off reporters' questions about Edwards, saying he did not care about the margin of victory in Wisconsin so long as he was the winner.
"Doesn't change anything whatever," Kerry told reporters outside a veterans' memorial museum. "If we win, we win, and we move on from here to the next races."
Asked to size up Edwards as a threat, Kerry did not respond directly to the North Carolina senator's popularity with many Democratic voters, instead making a distinction between his own visits to most states with upcoming primaries and Edwards's focus on campaigning hard in those states where he appears to have the best shot at a strong showing.
"I think you can't run for president cherry-picking states here and there, picking up one or two delegates here and somewhere," Kerry said.
Bush made an appearance with troops at Fort Polk, La., where he invoked the "rubble of the twin towers" as he showcased his role as a "wartime president." Though a White House official denied the trip was in any way political, the speech had all the trappings of a campaign appearance and occurred after a week of accusations that put Bush on the defensive about his National Guard service and his justification for the war in Iraq. "We saw the violence and grief that terrorists can inflict," Bush said.
Adamant that Bush was not on a taxpayer-funded campaign jaunt, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said that "just because it's an election year doesn't mean he stops being president." "He has traveled across the United States throughout his presidency, because he believes it's important to get outside Washington, D.C., and talk to the American people," McClellan said.