WASHINGTON – Despite his strong showing in Wisconsin, Sen. John Edwards faces a sobering uphill battle to overcome Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry's big lead in the race for delegates to secure the party's nomination.
Kerry already has more than a fourth of the 2,162 delegates needed to win the nomination, having pocketed 618 thus far, according to an Associated Press analysis. Edwards has 192.
Both campaigns are focusing on the "Super Tuesday" showdown of March 2, when 10 states — including delegate-rich California, New York and Ohio — hold primaries or caucuses.
But arcane Democratic party rules governing how delegates are allocated among candidates may impede Edwards' chances of overtaking Kerry, even if the North Carolina senator does well over the next few weeks, analysts say.
"I think it's going to be very difficult for Edwards," said Laurie Moskowitz, a political consultant in Washington who headed the delegate-tracking operation for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. "Party rules favor those who have a lead."
The Edwards campaign disagrees, hoping that the second-place finish in Wisconsin helps them win at least a couple states on Super Tuesday and sweep the four Southern states holding primaries or caucuses the following week. That scenario would turn the March 16 primary in Illinois into a key battleground.
The nominating process is about "winning the key battles and momentum then winning the individual delegate battles," Edwards campaign manager Nick Baldick said Thursday.
Party rules call for a portion of a state's pledged delegates to be allocated according to the statewide vote in a primary or caucus. But other pledged delegates are allocated separately according to the vote specifically in congressional districts.
Then there is a rule that lets a candidate qualify for delegates so long as they win at least 15 percent of the vote in the state or congressional district.
All this means that Kerry, or any other candidate, could still pick up delegates — win or lose.
Kerry has won 15 of the 17 states that have held primaries or caucuses so far, and he is the only candidate to have secured pledged delegates in every state. Edwards has won one state — South Carolina — and has been shut out of the delegate hunt in nine states. Former candidate Wesley Clark won the other state, Oklahoma.
The best-case scenario for Edwards is he wins by landslide proportions in upcoming key races, enough so that Kerry qualifies for few delegates, Moskowitz said.
Moskowitz and other analysts said Edwards also had to make inroads in winning support from Democratic "superdelegates" — people who get a vote at this summer's nominating convention in Boston because of their elected office or their influence within the party.
Of the major candidates, Kerry has received endorsements or pledges of support from nearly 20 percent of the 725 superdelegates named by the Democratic National Committee, while Edwards has less than 5 percent, according to an AP survey. Longshot hopefuls Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio together have the backing of less than 1 percent of superdelegates.
Remaining superdelegates either haven't endorsed anyone yet or had originally backed another candidate. Superdelegates are free to change their mind on whom to support and don't have to back a candidate who does well in their state's primary or caucus.
On Tuesday, Hawaii, Idaho and Utah hold primaries or caucuses, with a total of 61 pledged delegates at stake.
The following week, 1,151 pledged delegates will be up for grabs on Super Tuesday — over one-half of the total needed to nominate. California alone has 370 delegates, New York 236 and Ohio 140.
The Kerry campaign says they can compete in each state, and they will have the senator's New England base on which to build on — voters in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont all head to the polls March 2. Edwards has ceded Vermont — his name isn't on the state's primary ballot.
Should Kerry's winning streak continue, campaign officials estimate it may be mid-March at best until they accumulate enough delegates to secure the nomination.