MILWAUKEE -- After finishing far behind John F. Kerry in two Southern primaries yesterday, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina vowed to fight on in the presidential race, asserting that his twin second-place showings meant he was the sole legitimate challenger to the Massachusetts senator.
"Thank all of you, all of you, the voters that voted today in the election, for saying to the country that we're going to have a campaign and an election, not a coronation," he told about 200 people gathered at his postvote party here.
At the subdued affair, sans the balloons and pomp of his previous celebrations, Edwards jettisoned his standard stump speech for a rambling populist discourse that made clear he will base his final electoral stand in coming weeks on the issue of jobs.
"How did we get to this place?" he said after decrying the export of US jobs overseas. "We will fight with every bit of our being to keep American jobs right here in America."
Edwards has long sought to be the sole challenger to Kerry, a Southern alternative to the Massachusetts front-runner. He handily beat retired Army General Wesley K. Clark in Virginia and edged him out in Tennessee. Clark quit the race last night.
Rather than watch the election returns in either Virginia or Tennessee, Edwards flew to Milwaukee to begin campaigning in Wisconsin, which votes Tuesday. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean has said he will make a stand here, and Kerry also has campaigned hard.
Exit polls yesterday showed Kerry dominating even among lower-income voters, as well as blacks, besting Edwards in the demographics he had counted on. Edwards's only solace was that the two ran nearly even among Independent voters.
"It's harder and harder for Edwards with each state Kerry wins," said John Schwarzmeier, 52, of Milwaukee, who attended the Edwards postelection event. Schwarzmeier added that yesterday's results "undercut a little bit Edwards's argument that he's the Southern candidate."
Kari Dixon, 40, also of Milwaukee, who said she was checking out Edwards as an alternative to Dean, shook her head as she watched the electoral returns at Edwards's party.
"It makes the case that Kerry is the inevitable nominee," she said. "It will be a very difficult road ahead for Edwards."
Edwards's campaign manager, Nick Baldick, said his candidate's strategy now hinges on the two weeks between the Wisconsin vote and Super Tuesday on March 2, when 10 states go to the polls. The campaign is counting on voters to reassess Kerry.
"At a certain point, the voters are going to pause," Baldick said. "If they don't pause, then I think we have some issues."
Edwards has enough money to last until the Wisconsin vote, Baldick said, and is relying on his showing yesterday to generate enough funds to carry him past March 2. Later this week, Edwards has scheduled fund-raisers in San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as an appearance on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno. He has raised $2.6 million since mid-January, with about $1.3 million in matching funds from the federal government on the way. But television advertising in Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Virginia over the last week has depleted Edwards's coffers. The campaign would not disclose how much cash it has on hand.
Baldick said yesterday that the campaign would rely heavily on media coverage after Wisconsin.
He also said that no Democratic Party leaders have privately called on Edwards to drop out.
"I've not had a single phone call from anyone suggesting that," Baldick said.
Wisconsin political analysts said Edwards's populist message could resonate well in the blue-collar cities and small towns. But, they said, Kerry's surge will complicate matters.
"Kerry might outdo him here in terms of electability. It's a real obstacle for him," said Dennis Dresang, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
The urban areas of Milwaukee and Madison, filled with students and labor union members, account for a large part of the Democratic primary electorate, he said. Dean once ran strong in the cities, but his popularity has faded as Kerry's has risen, recent polls indicate.
In addition, high turnout is expected in both cities because of other electoral issues: Milwaukee has a tight mayoral primary and Madison will vote on a controversial casino gambling referendum.
Edwards's message, however, has worked best in rural areas and small towns in previous contests.
"The small town strategy is not as important in Wisconsin," Dresang said. "You have to do well in Madison and Milwaukee."
Raja Mishra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.