MILWAUKEE – John Edwards (search), a son of the South, lost in his backyard Tuesday and now must look to the unfamiliar terrain of the Midwest for a win as he struggles to remain a viable candidate.
The North Carolina senator who tells voters, "I will beat George Bush in my backyard," came in a distant second in Tennessee and Virginia to John Kerry (search), his Senate colleague from Massachusetts.
Edwards appeared pleased with the results despite the losses.
"Thank all of you, the voters who voted today, for saying to the country that we're going to have a campaign and an election, not a coronation," Edwards told a crowd at a hall in Milwaukee.
Edwards finished comfortably ahead of Wesley Clark (search) in both states, consistent with his strategy of waiting for his other rivals to drop out so he can emerge as the only alternative to Kerry after Wisconsin's primary Feb. 17, and challenge him head-to-head in the Super Tuesday contests on March 2.
"It looks like it's narrowed itself down to a two-person race now, and we're excited about our prospects," Edwards said in a televised interview. "He's in front and I'm the underdog, and I'm fighting."
It's shaping up to be an uphill road.
Edwards has won only one state, South Carolina, to Kerry's 12 victories. And, while Kerry's momentum only grows, Edwards is sticking to his policy-laden populist message that doesn't mention his rivals while he tries to gain ground.
Traditionally, candidates go on the attack to curb a front-runner's surge. But Edwards has promised a clean campaign and insists he won't go after Kerry. Instead, he is hoping Clark and Howard Dean will drop from the race, leaving voters to choose him over Kerry.
A successful trial lawyer before entering politics, Edwards tells voters he is the only candidate who can beat Texas-reared Bush in his own backyard, the South, yet he had trouble with a Massachusetts senator in Tennessee and Virginia.
Exit polls conducted for The Associated Press showed more voters thought Kerry is the more electable and experienced of the two. Edwards trailed Kerry among voters who said those were their most important issues. He drew his strongest support from voters who want a candidate who cares about people like them, who supports the Iraq war, who are white and conservative. He came close to tying Kerry among Virginia voters who want a candidate who can empathize with them and he led Kerry among that group in Tennessee.
And, even though he talked trade for a week in both states, Edwards also didn't do as well as Kerry among voters who said the economy and jobs were their top issues.
Still, Edwards focused on jobs and the economy at a rally here."You give me a shot at George Bush and I'm going to give him and you back the White House," Edwards said.
Some strategists said the Southern losses cripple Edwards' campaign and that money will stop flowing if he continues to lose.
"Someone needs to tap him on the shoulder and tell him the lights are out," said Dane Strother, a Democratic consultant unaffiliated with any candidate.
Joe Lockhart, President Clinton's press secretary, disagreed, calling the race a two-man contest now.
"There's going to be an appetite for this to go one more round, and he will go one more round as long as he's able to deliver the message that it's a new race, it's between two people and he has the resources to offer a credible campaign," Lockhart said.
Edwards insists he'll press on.
By the end of the week, the campaign will have staff in all 10 of the March 2 states and will compete in Minnesota, Ohio, Georgia, Maryland and upstate New York. The campaign also is looking toward March 9 primaries in Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Campaign manager Nick Baldick said the campaign was still deciding whether to compete in California, an extremely expensive state, on March 2. Edwards is spending two days there this week.