While front-runner John Kerry looked toward the next set of political races in his run for the Democratic nomination for president, other candidates tried to convince voters Monday to ignore the polls that show them lagging in the race and vote for them as the best alternative to President Bush.
Meanwhile, Kerry rivals John Edwards (search) and Wesley Clark (search) were banking on their Southern roots to propel them toward wins in Virginia and Tennessee on Tuesday in an effort to catch up to the leading Massachusetts senator.
And President Bush was also informally following the campaign trail, stopping in Missouri to talk about upswings in the U.S. economy. In the 2000 presidential election, Bush won the Show Me State and has been courting it ever since.
"We're growing," Bush said during his 15th presidential trip to the swing state. "The growth is good. New jobs are being created. Interest rates are low. Home ownership in America is at the highest levels ever."
Kerry won caucuses in Michigan, Washington and Maine over the weekend, giving him a 10 for 12 record. He's now focused on proving he can win in the Republican-heavy South.
Edwards and Clark have been trying to make inroads with voters in Tennessee and Virginia that offer 151 pledged delegates — 69 in Tennessee and 82 in Virginia — to keep their campaigns on life support. Edwards stumped in both states Monday; Clark in Tennessee.
"They're going to say, I've heard on TV, Bush is strong … Bush is popular in the South," Edwards told supporters in Jackson, Tenn. "Tell them the South is not Bush's backyard, it's my backyard. I'll beat Bush in my backyard.
But aides to both Clark and Edwards said they expect their candidates to lose in both states; polls there show Kerry poised to build on his weekend trifecta.
A Zogby/MSNBC/Reuters poll released Monday shows that Kerry has the lead in Tennessee with 45 percent of the vote, Edwards has 21 percent and Clark has 19 percent. Howard Dean (search) polled 5 percent in the survey of 600 likely Democratic voters that had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
That poll of 500 likely Virginia voters gave Kerry 47 percent of the vote, Edwards 24 percent, Clark 11 percent and Dean 10 percent. The undecided vote in both states was 1 percent.
American Research Group polls give Kerry sizable leads in all three states: 11 points over Edwards and 12 over Clark in Tennessee; 13 points over Edwards and 18 over Clark in Virginia; and 26 points over Clark and 31 over Edwards in Wisconsin. The margin of error in each poll taken last week was plus or minus 4 points.
Choosing the 'Leader of the Free World'
Kerry honed his tough and combative message Monday as the presumptive Democratic nominee against Bush, challenging the incumbent on national and economic security and education reform.
"You are choosing tomorrow not just a president of the United States," Kerry told supporters in Roanoke, Va. "You have the privilege of having an impact on the lives of people all over this planet because you are choosing a leader of the free world … we should not be opening firehouses in Baghdad and shutting them in the United States of America."
Dean, who lost the support of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (search), on Monday urged Wisconsin voters to ignore the media and opinion polls and use "the power to choose the strongest candidate to beat George W. Bush."
"The media claims this contest is over," Dean said. "They say your voice and your vote don't count. They expect you to rubber stamp the choice of others. But you don't have to listen to them."
After meeting with struggling factory and other works in Morrison, Tenn., Edwards told voters that the workers deserve to have a president "who understands, who knows what their lives are like" and that Bush is out of touch.
"The president we have now does not understand what these folks are going through. He does not understand what is going on in the lives of most Americans," said Edwards, who picked up the endorsement of Illinois Rep. Bill Lipinski (search).
Meanwhile, Clark tried to say he was different than his rivals on taxes and toughness, saying the lack of jobs in the United States is a "moral outrage," and that his military experience has thickened his skin and makes him a durable candidate.
"I'm the one candidate in this race who can really bring in independents and Republicans," he said. "There are a lot of people who voted for George W. Bush in 2000 who recognize they made a mistake."
The Handwriting on the Wall
Although Kerry's competitors are scrambling to catch up to Kerry, they're showing no signs of dropping out of the race.
"First of all, I don't put too much stock in the polls," Clark said Monday. "The polls are being driven a lot by the national media sense of momentum and inevitability. It's not inevitable."
Clark and Edwards are counting on a Feb. 17 showdown in Wisconsin, where Kerry competitors will hope for a big front-runner slip-up that could give them a boost.
But Edwards noted on "Fox News Sunday" that some 75 percent of delegates to the Democratic National Convention will still be up for grabs after Wisconsin votes.
"I view this very much as a long-term process, and we're in this for the long term," Edwards said.
But some campaign experts said those available delegates may not necessarily side with a Kerry rival.
"It's a whole lot harder to win the first 25 than the last 25 … the first 25 are in the bank and John Kerry has banked both of them," said Steve Jarding, who ran Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's campaign. "Even if they win — Clark wins in Tennessee and John Edwards wins in Virginia — it looks like John Kerry's got the momentum … it sure looks like he'll be tough to beat."
Dean, still with a 0-12 record, has refused to say directly that he'll drop out of the race if he doesn't win Wisconsin. He planned to begin airing a 60-second biographical ad there that describes him as a maverick and focuses on his medical and gubernatorial background.
Finishing up a six-city tour of Tennessee, including events with country music star Jamie O'Neal and blues legend B.B. King's club, Clark admitted Monday that he's the underdog, but still the best choice to run against Bush.
"This is the time for the voters of Tennessee to decide," Clark said. "You've got a front-runner, you've got a good lawyer and you've got an underdog. I'm the underdog."
Kerry on Monday gained the endorsements of West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller and New York Rep. Nita Lowey, as well as the 180,000-member Amalgamated Transit Union. He earlier who picked up backing from Warner.
Edwards may carry most, if not all, of the Virginia cities and counties along the North Carolina border, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, "but the engine of Democratic votes is Northern Virginia … and John Kerry's doing spectacularly there.
"Even if he [Kerry] should lose [on Tuesday], I think he's still the nominee apparent," Sabato continued. "It's time for Edwards and Clark, probably to read the handwriting on the wall - certainly Howard Dean - it's over."
Added Jarding: "I think this thing's pretty much all over but the shouting."
Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.