By Carl Cameron – After his wins in Nevada and Washington, D.C., John Kerry (search) is eyeing a blowout victory in Wisconsin Tuesday that could make it very hard for his rivals to plausibly argue that they remain competitive.
Meanwhile, there is something of a behind-the-scenes standoff emerging between John Edwards (search) and Howard Dean (search) about who drops out first after Wisconsin. Both Dean and Edwards envision their positions improving if the other drops out, so neither wants to quit first.
Both Edwards and Dean are facing external pressure from influential Democratic establishment leaders to pull out of the race so the party can coalesce behind Kerry, save money, and prepare for the fall battle against President Bush.
The AFL-CIO (search) endorsement of Kerry is a major sign of the party's acceptance of Kerry as the nominee.
The Democratic Party has between 15-20 million dollars in a fund waiting to help the nominee.
Both Dean and to a lesser extent Edwards are also under internal pressures to quit if they don't do well in Wisconsin.
Fox News has learned that former front-runner Howard Dean's campaign is divided about what to do after an expected Wisconsin defeat. Several top aides have urged Dean to withdraw if he does not perform well in the Badger State. Dean's most senior advisers have all said at one time or another in the last two weeks that they know it is over and the only hope is a major crisis of confidence in Kerry.
Though the Dean camp issued a memo more than a week ago saying Dean would drop out if he did not win in Wisconsin, when Dean saw polls giving Kerry a 30 point lead he reneged on that plan, saying he would remain in the race through Super Tuesday (search) — March 2 — because he felt he "owed it to his supporters and donors."
But Dean's campaign is basically broke now and he has said he will "absolutely not" run his campaign into debt to remain in the race.Dean was asked Saturday if he still planned to remain in the race after Wisconsin and told a reporter, "You'll see Wednesday."
Dean plans to return to Burlington, Vt., Tuesday night after Wisconsin's votes come in and will be in Burlington on Wednesday to "assess where things are."
While Dean has been spending a lot of time in Vermont lately, returning after the expected Wisconsin defeat could be a sign of how strapped for cash he is or that he plans an announcement from Vermont.
John Edwards is also under pressure to withdraw if he does not perform strongly Tuesday night. But the candidate insists he is staying in past Wisconsin, and is in better shape that Dean financially after winning in South Carolina.
The Edwards camp has been downplaying any expectations of a Wisconsin victory for weeks, but sources have told Fox News that if "Edwards gets blown out ... we're done. ... He needs to be within 5-7 points to continue with credibility."
The Edwards campaign says no decisions have been made but there have been discussions about what might happen if they lose badly in Wisconsin. For now the campaign is sending a message that it expects to fight on by tentatively scheduling a trip to New York City after Wisconsin for a fund-raiser. New York is the second largest state (behind California) to vote on March 2.
Edwards has serious money woes and has been splitting his time this week between the campaign trail in Wisconsin and fundraisers in Los Angeles. Edwards sources say they will not base their decision on anything Dean does. They are very convincing in their determination to fight on even as they concede how difficult that will be if they are "blown out." Edwards sources said last week that Wisconsin blowout would be losing to Kerry by anything more than 10 percentage points.
Sen. Kerry expects to follow up his weekend victories with a big win in Wisconsin. Public polls show Kerry at around 50 percent of likely Democratic voters with a 15-35 point lead over his rivals.
Kerry internal polls show the Massachusetts Democrat winning in every region of the Badger State. The polls even showed the candidate leading in Dean Country, which contains the city of Madison and the University of Wisconsin, where more liberal voters were originally thought to be heavily backing Dean.
After Wisconsin, Kerry will hold what aides say will be a "news-making event" in Ohio on Wednesday. Ohio is the third-largest state to vote on March 2.
Polls show Kerry leading comfortably in California and New York. Ohio is a critically important general election battleground that is often a bellwether of national sentiment.