MILWAUKEE – While Howard Dean (search) played Ping-Pong at an inner city youth center Tuesday, voters in the South were casting ballots in a pair of presidential primaries that he largely ignored.
The Democratic presidential candidate focused on the Wisconsin primary (search) a week away that he hopes will begin the turnaround of his struggling campaign.
Dean did not seriously compete in Virginia and Tennessee and continued his winless streak in presidential contests. He finished in single digits in both states, well behind Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), who won both primaries.
In questions with some of the roughly 75 children and teenagers at the youth center, Dean underscored how important Wisconsin's Feb. 17 primary is for him.
"There's a big election next Tuesday," Dean told them. "And if I win, I've got a good chance of being president. If I don't win, then maybe I won't be president."
It was that sense of urgency that took Dean to the United Community Center on Milwaukee's south side and a spirited 10-minute Ping-Pong game with Roy Cambronero, 16, a youth worker at the center.
"I hope he makes it," Cambronero said afterward.
Dean does, too, and he took his campaign to middle schools in Superior and La Crosse and wrapped up with a rally at a former church in Milwaukee that's now a cultural center.
Throughout the day, Dean cast himself as the progressive voice of the Democratic Party and asked Wisconsin voters to rally around him.
Although much of his day was spent with students too young to vote -- he gave a science lesson and another on history in La Crosse -- Dean also was trying to reach their parents. By crisscrossing the state, he was reaching many of them through local media markets.
"Wisconsin has an opportunity to elect a real progressive president who stands up for what's right," Dean said in La Crosse.
He has promised to run a positive campaign that does not seek to undermine the eventual nominee. But Dean still was taking aim at Kerry. Without naming the front-runner, Dean dismissed a "Washington fixture who plays the inside game."
"We need to send Washington an outsider, someone with a real record of change," Dean said.
At the same time, Dean was trying to reach more voters with a renewed advertising campaign, including two spots chosen by his legion of online supporters.
His prospects appear to be dim, a new poll shows.
Among likely voters, 45 percent are supporting Kerry, according to a statewide survey taken Wednesday through Saturday by Market Shares Corp. for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and WTMJ-TV. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark was supported by 13 percent, Dean 12 percent and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards 9 percent. The poll, which has a margin of error of 4 percent, showed 17 percent were undecided.
In Tuesday's primaries, exit polls showed Dean was weak among most groups in Virginia, but fared slightly better among the small group who consider themselves very liberal and among those who thought it was most important to have a candidate who stands up for what he believes. Dean performed even more poorly in Tennessee, though he was slightly stronger among those who want a candidate who stands up for what he believes in.
The exit polls of Democratic primary voters in Virginia and Tennessee were conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.