John Edwards' (search) goal is to be the alternative to front-runner John Kerry (search), but that's a tall order for a Democrat still reeling from a double defeat in his native South.

The North Carolina senator, who finished a poor second in Tennessee and Virginia Tuesday, is up against the inclination of Democrats to coalesce around the top vote-getter, the continued presence of rival Howard Dean (search) and a primary calendar that doesn't offer much hope for a win until March 2.

Still, Edwards has a strategy in his pursuit of the anti-Kerry title: stifle any Dean comeback in Wisconsin to emerge as the obvious alternative, capitalize on being the sole Southerner left in the race and stress his appeal to independents and conservatives.

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"He's ahead and I'm the underdog," Edwards said of Kerry in an interview with The Associated Press Wednesday. "But I'm in the place that I wanted to be -- one-on-one with somebody, in this case Senator Kerry."

Democratic Party leaders would prefer a quick end to the nomination fight, but they also seem willing to let it play out a bit more, at least through Tuesday when Wisconsin holds its primary with 72 delegates at stake.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said it would not be a problem if the nomination contest goes on for a week or two more, and added that a longer race actually would mean the "Democratic process is strengthened."

Edwards, who said he has not been pressured to bow out, even received some encouragement from a crucial Democratic stalwart -- former President Clinton. In an interview with USA Today, Clinton said there are reasons for Edwards to stay in the race.

"A lot of times things happen late in the race" that sometimes make a difference and sometimes don't, Clinton said, adding, "Look at the elections of the last 30 years. And ask yourself, is this election the same or different?"

After Edwards won South Carolina last week -- his lone victory in 14 contests -- he said Clinton suggested in a phone call that he should stay in the race. "He said 'You're doing great. Your speech is great,"' Edwards said.

Edwards also earned some praise by default as Dean, in his complaints about Kerry, said he believed Edwards would be the better candidate against President Bush in the general election.

"My fear is that he actually won't be the strongest Democratic candidate," Dean said of Kerry in an interview with CBS News that will air Wednesday night.

Asked about Dean's comment, Edwards told reporters: "I agree with that. I think that he is a very wise man."

First, though, is Wisconsin's primary Tuesday. Edwards' advisers say he doesn't have to win to emerge as the alternative to Kerry heading into the 10-state, delegate-rich contests March 2.

The goal, aides say, is to knock down Dean and hope Edwards' small-town roots will resonate with Wisconsin voters in agricultural regions and his jobs and fair trade message works in manufacturing areas for a strong finish.

After Wisconsin, the campaign hopes voters will turn to Edwards as the only viable alternative to Kerry. Campaign manager Nick Baldick argues that with two weeks between Wisconsin and March 2, Edwards will have plenty of time to make his case and voters will have a chance to compare instead of simply going with "who's doing well, who's on a roll."

Anita Dunn, an unaligned Democratic strategist, said the road ahead for Edwards is difficult, "but maybe not impossible because as we've all learned in this election year, nothing's impossible."

Edwards says he will talk about differences with his rivals "in a positive way."

On Wednesday in Wisconsin, Edwards outlined differences on trade. He didn't mention his rivals' names but called on them to oppose the U.S.-Australian trade agreement that officials have said will eliminate duties from more than 99 percent of American manufacturing exports to Australia. Edwards said the plan needs enforceable labor and environmental standards.

The campaign plans to compete in Minnesota, Ohio, Georgia, Maryland and upstate New York on March 2 and is looking toward March 9 primaries in Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi. It was still deciding whether to compete in expensive California on March 2. Edwards plans to fly there twice this week for a fund-raiser and to tape "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

Baldick said Tuesday that Edwards has enough money to compete through February, but he sent an "urgent" e-mail to supporters Wednesday asking for donations. Campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said additional resources are always needed in "hard fought" campaigns.