MILWAUKEE – Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry (search) scored victories east and west Saturday, swamping his rivals in Nevada and the District of Columbia caucuses to build his advantage in delegates needed for the nomination. His opponents pinned their hopes on the coming Wisconsin primary to try to slow him down.
Kerry, the only candidate to campaign in Nevada, easily outdistanced Howard Dean (search) in second place, for a Valentine's Day win that unexpectedly drew thousands of people to the party's meetings and surprised officials who saw far less enthusiasm four years ago.
Kerry also more than doubled his nearest opponent, Al Sharpton (search), in the D.C. race.
The rout kept Kerry's head of steam going as the candidates battled for the Wisconsin primary Tuesday. The Democrats met in Milwaukee for a Saturday night party fund-raising dinner — skipped by Dean, who made a quick trip home to Vermont for his son's hockey game — and a debate Sunday.
"These results show that our campaign is uniting Americans from different parts of our country and walks of life in a common purpose," Kerry said in a statement of thanks to voters in Washington, D.C.
And in thanking Nevadans for their "lovely valentine," too, Kerry promised anew to take the fight to President Bush. "I promise you that when the Republican smear machine trots out the same old attacks in this election, this is one Democrat who will fight back," he said.
"I've fought for my country my entire life, and I'm not about to back down now."
The Wisconsin race might be the last stand for Dean, the one-time presumptive favorite winless in the string of 2004 contests. John Edwards (search), who won in his native South Carolina, spoke of his determination to press on into March.
"I'm completely committed to this race," Edwards said after speaking to hundreds of supporters in a Madison, Wis., ballroom. "I think this process is too fluid to set any kind of arbitrary deadlines" for getting out.
With almost all precincts reporting in Nevada, Kerry had about 63 percent of the vote, with Dean at 17 percent, Edwards at 10 percent and Dennis Kucinich at 7 percent.
Across the country, the full results in the D.C. caucuses showed Kerry with 47 percent; Sharpton, 20 percent; Dean, 17 percent; Edwards, 10 percent; and Kucinich, 3 percent.
Dean prevailed in a D.C. vote last month, before his fortunes sank nationally, but the primary was held to protest the district's lack of voting representation in Congress and did not count.
Sharpton, the only black candidate left in the race, also did well in the nonbinding primary in the largely black district. Although he has performed marginally overall, Sharpton said his strength in several cities with large minority populations shows "black urban voters are demanding to be heard."
With the results from Saturday's caucuses, Kerry increased his delegate count to 577, an AP analysis shows. Dean had 188, Edwards 166, and Sharpton 16. Nomination requires 2,161 delegates. Forty were at stake Saturday; the allocation of a few had yet to be determined.
Many of the Democrats who attended the Nevada caucuses at schools, senior centers even saloons around the state said they were angry with Bush, and saw Kerry as the candidate best able to defeat him.
"Right now, John Kerry is the man," said Mark Ogulnick of Boulder City, a casino gift shop manager who attended the Las Vegas caucus. "Bush has proven time and time again that he is incompetent. This administration is a joke. For the most part, he's alienated us from the rest of the world."
Kerry "just symbolizes some hope in a hopeless time," said Linda Lera-Randle El, director of an organization that helps the homeless in Las Vegas. "He's like a beacon, and we're all clinging, hoping for something that won't let us down."
Even as the nomination fight pressed forward, there was a sense of a larger battle shaping up — the one in the fall between Bush and the Democratic nominee.
The 13-million-member AFL-CIO (search), slow to side with a candidate when a true competition is going on, plans to endorse Kerry soon, a sign that a linchpin of the Democratic Party considers the nomination all but settled.
Bush's GOP campaign distributed a video linking the four-term Massachusetts senator to special interests. The Internet launch limited the video's audience, but the attention surrounding it magnified its impact.
In response Saturday, Kerry's campaign sent its own Web video to 300,000 supporters, accusing Bush of being "the politician who's taken more special interest money than anyone in history."
The video claims Bush is cozy with polluters, pharmaceutical companies, big banks and investment firms, and says that Enron is the president's largest contributor. Kerry has run at least a dozen TV ads assailing Bush or his policies over the past six months.
"Instead of attacking America's problems, George Bush and our opponents have once again turned to attack politics," Kerry told the Wisconsin Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner in Milwaukee. As if speaking to those GOP rivals, he said, "You're not going to get away with it this time. Not in November of this year."
Terry Holt (search), a spokesman for the president's re-election committee, said Bush has received donations from "people from all walks of life" and Kerry missed the point of the campaign's video. "Our ad is not so much about special interests as it is about the sheer hypocrisy of the Kerry message," Holt said.
Edwards did not comment on the caucus results Saturday night, sticking to his message about job creation and trade in his remarks to the party dinner. Jennifer Palmieri, speaking for him, said only, "We congratulate Senator Kerry and look forward to seeing him in Wisconsin."
The Democrats plunged into the final weekend before the Wisconsin primary with both Dean and Edwards hungry for a win there to revive their campaigns. Polls offered them little hope. They did not campaign in Nevada or Washington, D.C.
Still, at a breakfast sponsored by black ministers, Dean showed no signs of discouragement. To an audience of more than 200, he said he had bolstered his campaign by turning to traditional Democratic voters.
"We're going to start with the African-American community," he said. "We're going to start with women.
Dean once said it would be over if he lost Wisconsin but later modified that position to hold out the possibility he might press on. In his latest version, Dean said he simply didn't know what would happen to his campaign if he lost.
Edwards, who raised $500,000 in Los Angeles before flying to Wisconsin, said he's pushing ahead no matter what happens Tuesday. Aides said he had enough money to continue, having raised more than $3 million since finishing second in Iowa's leadoff caucuses.