The Associated Press

John Kerry’s rivals tried yesterday to slow his brisk pace
toward the Democratic nomination for president, with John Edwards
and Wesley Clark searching for upset wins in two Southern states
and Howard Dean beseeching Wisconsin voters “to keep this
debate alive.”

As Edwards and Clark concentrated on Virginia and Tennessee,
which hold primaries today, Kerry ignored his rivals and criticized
President Bush on foreign policy and his stewardship of the
economy.

Looking ahead to Wisconsin, Dean said that despite earlier
statements that he viewed the Feb. 17 primary as a do-or-die
contest, he would stay in the race regardless of the outcome.

“I’ve just changed my mind,” he said.

Before an audience in Roanoke, Va., Kerry scorned a White House
economic report released earlier in the day that predicted the
economy would grow by 4 percent and create 2.6 million new jobs
this year.

“I’ve got a feeling this report was prepared by the
same people who brought us the intelligence on Iraq,” Kerry
said, citing job losses of more than 2 million since Bush took
office.

The Massachusetts senator also faulted Bush for policy failures
on North Korea, AIDS, global warming and the Middle East peace
process.

Edwards and Clark were each hoping a strong showing in Tennessee
and Virginia would eliminate the other and turn the race into a
two-man contest with Kerry, but polls showed Kerry well ahead in
both states.

Dean, the former Vermont governor who was once the race’s
front-runner, urged Wisconsin voters to prove the polls and the
media wrong and use their “power to choose the strongest
candidate to beat George W. Bush.”

“The media claims this contest is over. They say your
voice and your vote don’t count. They expect you to rubber
stamp the choice of others. But you don’t have to listen to
them,” Dean told an audience of about 300 at a downtown
Madison hotel.

Dean began a two-day tour and an aggressive advertising campaign
in Wisconsin, a state he told supporters last week he must win to
keep his candidacy alive.

But yesterday, he said his backers had persuaded him to stay in
the race regardless of the results. He dismissed his own
“obvious contradiction.”

Dean also began airing a 60-second biographical spot in some
Wisconsin markets, his first advertising buy in the state in
months.

Kerry’s winning streak — he handily won contests
over the weekend in Michigan, Washington state and Maine — is
clearly taking a toll on his competitors.

Aides to both Clark and Edwards said they expect their
candidates to lose Virginia and Tennessee, even though both had
earlier been optimistic about winning in their home region. A total
of 151 pledged delegates are at stake in the two states.

Edwards and Clark each have one win apiece, while Kerry has won
10 of the 12 contests thus far.

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