FNC
Mort Kondracke / Fred Barnes
Does John Edwards have any chance of beating John Kerry to win the Democratic nomination for president?  Who would President Bush prefer to run against?  For answers to these questions and more we turned to "The Beltway Boys," (Saturdays 6pm, 2am; Sundays 6am; 3am ET) Mort Kondracke and Fred Barnes:

Mort Kondracke: The Bush campaign had just begun to adjust to the idea that the president’s 2004 Democratic opponent would be John Kerry and not Howard Dean. Now, it has to at least consider the possibility that it’ll be John Edwards. Just as Bush aides hoped for the far-out Dean as their foe, they’d rather have Kerry, with his 19-year Senate record to pick on, than Edwards, with only a five-year record.

The odds still favor Kerry by miles. The Wisconsin primary gave Kerry his 15th victory out of 17 contests. Edwards has won just one and is miles behind in delegates. Yet, the Wisconsin results did suggest that Democrats aren’t wild about Kerry, but favor him because he seems the most electable. Exit polls showed that the voters favored Edwards on the issues and on empathy, but went with Kerry because they thought he could beat Bush. But a new Gallup poll shows that Edwards, too, could beat Bush. So, it’s possible — not likely, but possible—that Democrats in the 10 states voting March 2 could suddenly fall for Edwards.

Bush aides have files on both contenders, but Kerry’s is thicker — based on votes against tax cuts and weapons systems, plus coziness with “special interests.” The case against Edwards consists mainly of his closeness to the trial lawyer lobby and lack of foreign policy experience. The Bushies have yet to focus on Edwards’ claim that the country is divided into “two Americas”—a thin layer of the rich and powerful and everyone else. Fact is, we’re a middle class country. And besides, Edwards is very rich.

Fred Barnes: Edwards is winning everything — the press, exit poll questions, the rhetorical battle — except primaries and caucuses.  He finished second to Kerry in Iowa a month ago by four points and second to Kerry in Wisconsin this week by roughly the same amount.  So he’s back where he started.  Kerry won 14 of the 15 contests in between.  In truth, there is no Edwards surge.

Kerry could stumble.   Mort is quite right in noting that Democrats are not wild about Kerry.  He’s a pompous man whose support is a yard wide and an inch deep.  His backing is neither ideological nor personal.  If it were, he might survive a bump, a glitch, a faux pas, a gaffe.  But given that he’s favored only because he seems able to beat President Bush, any indication this might not be true would send Democratic voters rushing to Edwards.

Bush?   There’s reason for Republicans to worry at the moment, and they are.  President Clinton trailed Republican Bob Dole in 1995 and early 1996, then went ahead after his State of the Union address and never trailed again.  Bush got nothing from his State of the Union, but his time is coming once the Democratic race is over.  He’ll need to take full advantage of it.  And I suspect he’s ready to do just that.