ATLANTA – As voters went to the polls in Idaho, Utah and Hawaii on Tuesday to choose a Democratic opponent to President Bush, the candidates sharpened their attacks against the incumbent with new fuel for the fire: a proposed ban on gay marriage.
Meanwhile, the president himself has launched his own efforts to keep his seat in the Oval Office.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search) pretty much ceded Tuesday's contests to the front-runner, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search). Neither candidate actively campaigned in those three states, which only offer up a combined 61 delegates.
"We are running a national campaign, we are campaigning everywhere," Edwards told reporters Tuesday. "There is just a limit to how much we can do and there are obviously a bunch of states on Super Tuesday that we have to campaign in."
Instead, Edwards, whose strong showing in Wisconsin Feb. 17 propelled him toward a head-to-head battle with Kerry, is campaigning hard in the South. He's hoping to deliver Southern votes for Democrats in a November match-up with Bush.
So far, Edwards has only won South Carolina — the state of his birth — and although he has placed a solid second in other races, he still has a lot of catching up to do to reach Kerry, who has a primary/caucus win record of 15-2.
In the Super Tuesday states that vote March 2, the latest poll in California gives Kerry a whopping 56-24 lead over Edwards and among Californians who think trade has cost jobs — an issue Edwards has used against Kerry — Kerry still clobbers Edwards 55-28.
In New York, polls give Kerry a 66-14 lead. Fox News has learned that Kerry will maintain his strong advantage in a new set of polls to be released Wednesday and Thursday in Ohio, Maryland and Georgia.
If Kerry wins all three Tuesday races, that will just add to his delegate total so far of 495; Edwards has 171 and 2,162 are needed to clinch the nomination.
Heading into Super Tuesday, and debates scheduled in Los Angeles and New York this week, Michael Meehan, Kerry's senior campaign adviser, told Fox News, "we're going to take our message of getting the economy back on track, getting the jobs back that we lost."
In lieu of going out for lunch, Edwards supporters in Georgia Tuesday were asked to donate the dollars saved to his campaign as part of the "Official John Edwards Bring Your Lunch to Work Day."
The Southern senator received the formal backing of a number of Georgia Democratic state lawmakers and met with a civil rights organization headed by longtime civil rights leader Joseph Lowery.
Lowery said even though his organization, the Coalition for the People's Agenda (search), did not endorse candidates, "I have not been as impressed by a candidate as I am by this young man in a long time."
Kerry focused on his jobs message in Ohio, where 140 delegates will be up for grabs on Super Tuesday.
Social and Political Hot Potato
Kerry's camp said Bush's announcement Tuesday that he would support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage is way too conveniently timed to not be part of his re-election strategy.
"There isn't a national poll anywhere in the country that shows Bush has [an up on] John Kerry anywhere so I think we've got him on the run," Meehan said.
Both Kerry and Edwards blasted Bush for saying Tuesday that he would support a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages. Both candidates oppose gay marriage but support civil unions.
Campaigning hard in Georgia, which is in the process of acting on its own to ban state marriages, Edwards said: "It's for the state of Georgia to decide — for every state to decide. I think the federal government should honor their decision."
Added Kerry: "All Americans should be concerned when a president who is in political trouble tries to tamper with the Constitution of the United States at the start of his re-election campaign."
Bush launched his re-election campaign and came out swinging on Monday night — saying that America must keep moving forward on the economy and the war on terrorism. He blasted his Democratic rivals for what he considered flip-flopping on issues such as the Iraq war, tax cuts and NAFTA (search).
"So far, all we hear is a lot of old bitterness and partisan anger. Anger is not an agenda for the future of America," Bush said. "We are taking on the big issues with strength, and resolve, and determination — and we stand ready to lead this nation another four years."
The president's remarks marked the first return salvo after months of relentless Democratic criticism.
"The president's been sitting there biting his lip for four to five months now," Sen. Saxby Chambliss (search), R-Ga., told Fox News. "Their attacks have been directed solely at him and he's had to sit there and take it ... there comes a point in time where they say enough is enough."
GOP Games or Legit Record Blasting?
Republicans are meanwhile defending their attacks against Kerry's voting record.
Kerry recently blasted Bush and his "surrogates" for questioning the senator's voting record on defense and military, saying that's the equivalent of attacking his service and patriotism. The decorated Vietnam veteran said he won't take that criticism sitting down from Republicans "who never fought in a war."
But Republicans argue they're just trying to point out discrepancies.
"I just felt they [Kerry's campaign] needed to be honest if they were going to put out the rhetoric that they were strong on defense," Chambliss told Fox News on Tuesday. "The fact is, John Kerry has a record that doesn't support that rhetoric."
Republicans point out that when Kerry ran for Congress in 1972, he said he wouldn't vote for defense appropriations bills, then voted to cut funding for major defense weapons systems like the F-15, F-16, B-1 and B-2.
"His policies have been not in favor of a strong defense for the past 20 years, and he's going to have a tough time making the case that he's the best person to lead this country in the war against terrorism," said Republican Colorado Gov. Bill Owens.
"His record is fair game," added GOP strategist Ed Rogers. "John Kerry is a taller, thinner version of Ted Kennedy," the Massachusetts senator known for his liberal takes on a variety of issues.
But Democratic strategists say the Bush-Cheney camp should remember both Kerry and Edwards supported the war and stop trying to scare voters to vote Republican.
"Someone needs to tell the White House they're not running against Howard Dean anymore" said Bruce Reed, a former policy adviser to Bill Clinton.
"This White House is so desperate to scare people about terrorists that they're own education secretary yesterday called the teachers' union a terrorist organization. I think they need to calm down over there."
Edwards also on Tuesday told Bush to not count on Kerry as his November rival.
"Not so fast George Bush. You don't get to decide who our nominee is," Edwards declared at a rally in Atlanta.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.