The Democratic contest for the national party's nod to run against President Bush in November is down to a two-man race — finally.
Howard Dean (search) ended his formal candidacy for president Wednesday afternoon, one day after another poor primary showing Tuesday in Wisconsin.
"I am no longer actively pursuing the presidency," Dean told a crowd of cheering supporters in Vermont. "We will, however, continue to build a new organization using our enormous grass-roots network to continue the effort to transform the Democratic Party and to change our country."
"This is the end of page 1 for the fight but the fight will go on and we will be together in that fight," he continued. "The bottom line is that we must beat George W. Bush in November, whatever it takes."
The two contenders laid plans on Wednesday for their 10-state showdown March 2.
Dean had earlier told supporters that it was Wisconsin or bust for his campaign, but then backtracked and said he would stay in the race with or without a strong showing.
But the 14 percent support he got in the Badger State wasn't enough to keep his campaign on life support.
"This is to be expected, at least in the perspective of the last two to three weeks," Don Fowler (search), former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told Fox News. "It's just amazing how he was riding so high for so long — then his campaign just collapsed."
So the remaining question is, what impact will Dean's withdrawal from the race have on the contest?
"I guess one of the real questions is, what is his role going to be?" asked Frank Fahrenkopf, (search) former head of the Republican National Committee. "It's going to be very interesting to see what the dynamics is with his withdrawal on the race as this campaign goes forward."
Dean said he wants to refocus his grassroots campaign toward helping defeat Bush in November, first and foremost.
"He wants to get this movement he basically has started ... and wants to get them involved and motivated for the November elections for the democratic nominee — that's the most we can expect from him," said Tony Coehlo (search), the former manager of Al Gore's presidential campaign. "I think it's great he's willing to do this."
"I anticipate we'll see a lot of Howard Dean in the next eight months," Coehlo added.
Dean's former campaign chairman, Steve Grossman (search), told Fox News that he wants to "be helpful in building bridges between the Dean organization and the Kerry organization."
Grossman said there was no disloyalty in his moves this week to leave the Dean campaign and lean toward the front-runner. He said he hasn't talked to Kerry recently and had no affiliation yet with that campaign. Grossman recalled his statement that Dean would need to win Wisconsin to stay alive and that if he did not, "then and only then will I reach out to John Kerry."
There are no expectations, meanwhile, that Dean will endorse either Kerry or Dean.
Kerry won the biggest share of the Wisconsin vote with 40 percent, but Edwards picked up 34 percent.
"The voters of Wisconsin sent a clear message," Edwards said Wednesday. "The message was this: Objects in your mirror may be closer than they appear."
"This enormous surge in the last few days has been surprising everybody ... this is an amazing response," Edwards told Fox News. "I'm fighting my heart out ... I'm in this fight to win and I'm gonna go after it in every way I know how."
Kerry's win gives him a state primary/caucus record of 15-2.
"The motto of the state of Wisconsin is 'forward,' and I want to thank the people of the state of Wisconsin for moving this cause and this campaign forward tonight," Kerry told supporters.
Now that it is a two-man race, more contrasts will inevitably be drawn between the freshman senator Edwards and his 19-year Senate colleague from Massachusetts.
The next major round will be March 2, the biggest of this election year's several "Super Tuesdays." California, New York, Ohio, Minnesota, Vermont, Georgia, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maryland will be holding primaries and caucuses, with 1,151 delegates, more than half of the 2,161 needed to claim the nomination, at stake.
Hawaii, Idaho and Utah will hold contests next Tuesday, Feb. 24, with 61 delegates up for grabs.
When Candidates Attack
Edwards continues to hammer away at Kerry's free-trade policies and will heavily target March 2 states of Ohio, New York and Georgia with television ads.
Kerry, on the other hand, will fight Edwards on one front and President Bush on another, advertising in general-election battleground states.
"Every race is going to be contested. Every race," Kerry said in Ohio. "We're fighting for every vote."
On the campaign trail in Ohio Wednesday, Kerry dismissed criticism from Edwards on trade. Edwards has criticized Kerry's support for the North American Free Trade Agreement (search) — but Kerry insists that he and Edwards have similar views.
The Massachusetts senator also rejected suggestions that Edwards has a better understanding of what it's like to lose a job, since he comes from a working-class background and Kerry does not.
"If where you come from was a qualification for being president, we'd never have had Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy," Kerry said.
Aides say Edwards' populist message will resonate in Ohio and upstate New York, areas hard hit by job losses. Strategists said trade could be a make-or-break issue in Ohio, a state narrowly won by Bush in 2000 but among the hardest hit by job losses.
The Southern-bred candidate also should do well in Georgia.
Kerry is keeping his campaign focus — taking on the current Oval Office occupant.
Kerry's advisers said the March 2 round gives him a chance to campaign and advertise in two states that will be critical to defeating Bush in the fall — Ohio, which Bush won by less than 4 percentage points after Gore pulled out his resources; and Minnesota, a traditionally Democratic state that Gore won by just 2 percentage points.
Edwards has long said if he got to a two-man race, he would bend his strict rule about not criticizing rivals.
"The real question is, what does Edwards do now? He's got to win somewhere besides where he was born," Fahrenkopf said. "If he starts to attack, that may help Republicans because Edwards will be attacking Kerry."
Doug Schoen, former President Bill Clinton's pollster, said Edwards' resurrection in Wisconsin has created three problems for Kerry: He can't focus exclusively on Bush, he must delay plans to raise money for the general election, and "there's a risk that NAFTA could strike a vein."
"I believe this is a glitch in Kerry's glide path to the nomination," Schoen said. "But glitches can turn into gorges."
Edwards' aides hoped for at least two opportunities to debate Kerry in the next month.
"I'm ready for that, any time tonight or tomorrow morning or any time Senator Kerry wants to do it," Edwards said. "I want voters to know exactly what both of us have to offer."
Fox News' Carl Cameron, Steve Brown, Ellen Uchimiya, Kelly Wright and The Associated Press contributed to this report.