As Sen. John Kerry (search) plows ahead in the polls and is predicted to win Tuesday's Virginia, Tennessee and Wisconsin primaries, his Democratic competitors did what they could Monday to rattle his lead.
Sen. John Edwards (search) and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark (search), who both hail from the South, pounded the pavement in Virginia and Tennessee, hoping for wins Tuesday when the two states hold their primaries.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search), on the other hand, focused his efforts on the Midwestern state of Wisconsin, where the primary race is set for next Tuesday, Feb. 17. He urged voters there "to keep this debate alive."
In the latest Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, taken Feb. 4-5, 47 percent of respondents would vote for President Bush if the election were held now, while Kerry closely tailed the president, with 43 percent saying they'd vote for him.
By contrast, Bush held a 50 percent lead to Edwards' 37 percent, 54 percent to Dean's 35 percent and 53 percent to Clark's 34 percent, according to the Fox poll.
Kerry, for his part, ignored his rivals on Monday, instead pummeling Bush on foreign policy and the economy.
Before an audience in Roanoke, Va., Kerry scorned a White House economic report released earlier in the day that predicted the economy would grow by 4 percent and create 2.6 million new jobs this year.
"I've got a feeling this report was prepared by the same people who brought us the intelligence on Iraq," Kerry said, citing job losses of more than 2 million since Bush took office.
The Massachusetts senator also faulted Bush for policy failures on North Korea, AIDS, global warming and the Middle East peace process.
Kerry's winning streak — he handily won contests over the weekend in Michigan, Washington state and Maine — was clearly taking a toll on his competitors.
Edwards and Clark were both hoping strong showings in Tennessee and Virginia would eliminate the other and turn the race into a two-man contest with Kerry, but polls showed Kerry well ahead in both states.
Aides to both Clark and Edwards said they expect their candidates to lose Virginia and Tennessee, even though both had earlier been optimistic about winning in their home region. A total of 151 pledged delegates are at stake in the two states.
Dean, who was once the party's front-runner, urged Wisconsin voters to prove the polls and the media wrong and use their "power to choose the strongest candidate to beat George W. Bush."
Looking ahead to Wisconsin, Dean said that despite earlier statements that he viewed the Feb. 17 primary as a do-or-die contest, he would stay in the race regardless of the outcome. "I've just changed my mind," he said.
"The media claims this contest is over. 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," Dean told an audience of about 300 at a downtown Madison hotel.
Dean began a two-day tour and an aggressive advertising campaign in Wisconsin, a state he told supporters last week he must win to keep his candidacy alive. But on Monday, he said his backers had persuaded him to stay in the race regardless of the results. He dismissed his own "obvious contradiction."
He also began airing a 60-second biographical spot in some Wisconsin markets, his first advertising buy in the state in months.
Edwards and Clark each have one win apiece, while Kerry has won 10 of the 12 contests thus far. Kerry has more than twice as many delegates as Dean, his closest pursuer — 426 after the contest in Maine on Sunday compared to Dean's 184, according to an Associated Press tally. It takes 2,162 delegates to win the nomination.
Clark and Edwards have vowed to forge ahead until Wisconsin despite Kerry's increasing advantage, hoping for a lucky break or a potential slip-up by the front-runner.
In Morrison, Tenn., Edwards met privately with Carrier Corp. factory workers who found out last week that the plant was closing, eliminating 1,300 jobs. He said after the meeting at a barbecue restaurant near the plant 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," Edwards said.
Clark told supporters in Union City, Tenn., that jobs were his top issue. "People are struggling in this country, and I think it's a moral outrage," he said.
Clark was sweeping through six Tennessee cities before ending his day in Nashville with country music star Jaime O'Neal.
In Memphis, he acknowledged polls showing him trailing Kerry and Edwards in Tennessee and Virginia. "You've got a front-runner, you've got a good lawyer and you've got an underdog. I'm the underdog," he said. Edwards became a multimillionaire as a plaintiffs' lawyer before being elected to the Senate in 1998.
Kerry gained more support on Monday when he won the endorsements of West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller and New York Rep. Nita Lowey. Kerry was also backed by another major union, the 180,000-member Amalgamated Transit Union, the largest labor organization representing U.S. transit workers.
Another union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, officially reversed course and withdrew its support of Dean. The 1.5 million-member AFSCME, which had met with Dean on Saturday, said it was turning its efforts to the fall campaign and unifying the Democratic Party.
Edwards picked up the endorsement of Illinois Rep. Bill Lipinski, an 11-term member of Congress who represents southwest Chicago and its suburbs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.