Kerry, Edwards Court Minn. Dean Supporters

John Kerry (search) and John Edwards (search) both think the path to victory in Minnesota's Democratic presidential caucuses next Tuesday is to win over the followers of former rival Howard Dean (search).

Dean folded his campaign last week, but his supporters — he estimates them at about 7,000 strong — still loom large in the race for the state's 72 pledged delegates to the Democratic convention.

"We're aware that their support is very crucial, especially the folks who have not been involved," said Buck Humphrey, Minnesota co-chairman of Kerry's campaign.

Edwards recognizes their importance, too.

At a recent campaign rally in St. Paul, Edwards made time to meet privately with 25 prominent Dean activists. In a nod to Dean's appeal as an antiestablishment candidate, the first-term senator from North Carolina played up his shallow roots in Washington and his respect for Dean, according to Randy Schubring, one of the activists.

Minnesota is far from the main prize on what's known as Super Tuesday, when 10 states hold primaries or caucuses. California, New York and Ohio each offer far more delegates than Minnesota.

Still, a win for Edwards, who so far has only won South Carolina, would help keep his campaign alive; a Kerry victory would put the front-running Massachusetts senator ever closer to becoming the party's nominee.

"Edwards needs to win somewhere. He needs to win somewhere outside of the South," said Joe Peschek, a political science professor at Hamline University, where Edwards was visiting Friday. "If he won Minnesota, he could claim that he still has enough support among loyal Democrats to keep his campaign going a little longer."

There's been no independent polling ahead of the caucuses, and no television advertising by the candidates, but both Kerry and Edwards have visited. Edwards' appearance Friday would be his second in a week.

Kerry was in St. Paul on Wednesday and attended a rally with an overflow crowd of firefighters, steelworkers and other union members. He is backed by the AFL-CIO, which has 400,000 workers in the state, and unions have been a potent force in the state's Democratic politics for years, especially on caucus night.

Kerry spokesman Michael Meehan said there were no plans to send more resources to the state, and that Kerry did not plan to return before the voting.

"There are 10 states voting on Tuesday," Meehan said. "Our strategy has been to try to get as many states as we can."

Besides Kerry and Edwards, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich has campaigned hard in Minnesota and is expected to have one of his stronger showings. The Rev. Al Sharpton of New York has virtually ignored the state.

Any adult who intends to vote for the Democratic candidate in November and who isn't active in another political party can attend Tuesday's caucus and cast a preference ballot.

The state party has ordered 20,000 ballots. To put that in context, the Democratic caucuses in 2000 drew 11,900 people. About 25,000 showed up when Democratic candidates vied for a shot at the first President Bush in 1992.

That's what makes Dean's supporters such a coveted group.

"We have the organization on the ground," said St. Paul resident Anne White, who joined about 50 of Dean's leading Minnesota organizers at a meeting last weekend. She said a majority decided to back Edwards because they think he is more in tune with Dean's agenda and style than Kerry, and that they planned to call, e-mail and otherwise reach out to fellow Dean backers to encourage them to do the same.

The sentiment wasn't universal, though. White said some activists left the meeting uncommitted or planning to cast a symbolic vote for Dean.

Wesley Clark, the retired general from Arkansas, also had a strong Minnesota following. His database had about 2,000 volunteers and donors here, an aide said. Clark has endorsed Kerry and some of his followers, like Rep. Betty McCollum, made the same switch.