Democratic Primaries Winding to a Close

Not so fast John Kerry (search).

While the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has set his sights on November, the second half of the party's primary and caucus calendar is just getting under way after a nearly one-month hiatus.

Pennsylvania voters go to the polls on Tuesday. Ten other states and Puerto Rico hold primaries or caucuses in the six weeks that follow, ending with contests June 8 in Montana and New Jersey.

For Kerry, who secured enough delegates to claim the nomination last month, these upcoming contests will give him a chance to roll up an overwhelming margin heading into the Democratic National Convention (searchin July. They also provide a forum for him to perfect his stump speech, raise more money and build a campaign infrastructure and grass-roots support.

But if two recent contests are any indication, there's not much excitement among voters.

About 1 percent of Colorado's registered Democrats came out for the April 13 caucuses, though party officials say it was the best turnout in recent years. In North Carolina, state party officials printed 220,000 ballots for caucuses on April 17, but only 17,809 people — or less than 1 percent of registered Democrats — voted.

That's in sharp contrast to record turnout estimates in states that voted earlier in the year, before the Massachusetts senator took control of the race.

In rural Camden County, N.C., about 20 of the county's 2,000 registered Democrats voted, said county party chairwoman Iris Leary.

"I didn't realize it would be quite so low. One of the reasons was this is a farming area and it was a pretty day that day so nobody wanted to go out to the polls," said Leary, of Shiloh, N.C. "But the fact that Kerry already won, that was more important."

Turnout in Pennsylvania may be higher than in other late-voting states because of the close Republican Senate primary battle between conservative Rep. Pat Toomey and four-term Sen. Arlen Specter, a moderate.

But overall, recent turnout rates have been "pathetic," even taking into account that they had been expected to fall short of the rates seen in January and February, said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Millersville University in Millersville, Pa.

"There's likely to be little we can learn about the bigger election this fall," he said.

Case in point: Sen. John Edwards (search), who ceased active campaigning in early March, won the caucuses in North Carolina, his home state. His only other victory came in South Carolina, where he was born.

The primary and caucus season traditionally starts in Iowa in January for both parties and stretches until June. Typically though, if there isn't a presumptive winner after the "Super Tuesday" primaries, usually in March, the field is at least winnowed to two or three candidates.

This year's Democratic calendar was even more front-loaded. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe (searchsaid he expected it would produce a nominee by March 10, to allow the party to begin quickly airing ads in support of its candidate and get an even earlier start in the tough race against President Bush.

An Associated Press tally showed Kerry had won enough delegates to secure the nomination by March 13, the day of caucuses in Kansas. There were four more Democratic contests through March 20, before a one-month break that ended with Colorado's caucuses on April 13.

Party officials in some states still long for their respective contests to be earlier on the schedule to give their voters a bigger role in choosing the presidential nominee.

"It would always be good to have that kind of pull and get that kind of attention, and it would be easier to get candidates here," said Julie DeWoody, executive director of the Colorado Democratic Party.

But, she added, since Colorado's contest is usually late on the calendar, "people are used to going to caucuses here and not having a stake" in the decision making.

Meanwhile, Kerry adviser Michael Meehan said the campaign has been in general election mode since mid-March. The strategy includes stops in key battleground states that have yet to hold primaries, like Pennsylvania and West Virginia, as well as building infrastructure and raising cash in remaining states.