John Kerry's chief rivals all but ceded three weekend elections to the high-striding presidential front-runner on Wednesday, covering their retreat with fresh claims that he is a flip-flopping Washington insider who would lead the party to defeat this fall.
Southern natives John Edwards and Wesley Clark pointed their cash-strapped campaigns to next Tuesday's elections in Tennessee and Virginia, gambling that they can survive to fight Kerry in Wisconsin Feb. 17. A third challenger, Howard Dean, also had his sights set on a Wisconsin showdown.
The odds are stacked against all three. In a war of attrition, Kerry has the most allies, the longest supply lines and weakened adversaries.
"Without money, you can't have the troops. Without troops, you can't compete. How can you compete with a guy who can write himself a check for ads in California?" said Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus.
Clark, Edwards and Dean hope to rise out of Wisconsin as the only alternative to Kerry when the race turns to contests in California, New York and eight other "Super Tuesday" states March 2.
Two officials close to Clark, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the retired Army general considered dropping out of the race Tuesday night after scoring a single victory, a nail-biter in Oklahoma. They said his wife, Gert, helped talk him into staying in the race against the advice of some backers.
In another sign of trouble, Clark's staff agreed to a pay freeze to pay for television ads.
The hopes of Edwards, Clark and Dean hinged on two matters that were out of their control - Kerry's performance and his past. A plodding and imperfect campaigner, the Massachusetts senator could make a mistake or be scorched under the spotlight cast upon his nearly 20-year record in the Senate.
To that end, the challengers are trumpeting media reports about Kerry's ties to special interests and lobbyists.
"If we're going to have a president who's not a Washington insider, who knows the changes that need to take place in Washington to change America, I need to be the president," Edwards told CNN the day after he won South Carolina to keep his candidacy alive.
Kerry won five states and the lion's share of the delegates Tuesday, taking command of the race. Of the 269 delegates up for grabs, Kerry won 144, Edwards 66, Clark 50, Dean seven and Al Sharpton two.
Dean suggested that "it'll be more of the same" if Kerry replaces Bush in the White House. Clark criticized both Kerry and Edwards, faulting them for complaining about White House policies that they had backed in the Senate.
Michigan and Washington state hold caucuses Saturday, and Maine comes a day later for a total of 224 pledged delegates - nearly as many that were at stake Tuesday.
Clark and Edwards do not plan to visit the states. Their strategists, focused on Tuesday's must-win Southern races, believe that Kerry will dominate the weekend contests.
In Michigan, where 128 delegates are at stake, polls show Kerry leading Edwards and Dean by more than 40 percentage points. He also has the endorsement of Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
There are no public polls in Washington state and Maine, but strategists for all four campaigns said Kerry should win easily. Kerry's internal polls show him safely leading in both states, sources close to the senator said.
Dean's strategists hold out a glimmer of hope because Washington has a history of backing underdogs and Maine has a small, unpredictable Democratic voting base.
Confident of victory, Kerry opted not to advertise in the weekend states, though he will travel to them. Dean had no choice; he is short on money and is saving his resources for Wisconsin. And yet, to the dismay of his senior advisers, Dean raised expectations Wednesday.
"We are going to win the Washington caucuses," he said in Seattle.
One top adviser to the former Vermont governor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Dean will regret the remark when he loses. Another aide, when told of Dean's comment, wrote it off as an example of his boss' lack of discipline.
Looking ahead to Wisconsin, Edwards and Clark decided Wednesday to air ads in the state.
Kerry hopes to knock one or both of them out of the race next week, thus he decided to air ads in Tennessee, Virginia and the District of Columbia. The latter is an expensive TV market that reaches into heavily Democratic northern Virginia. Clark and Edwards are buying ads in Virginia and Tennessee, but not in the critical northern Virginia market.
Edwards e-mailed supporters a plea for money. Touting his double-digit South Carolina victory, he wrote, "Help provide the resources needed for the victories ahead."
Kerry told potential donors to join a winning campaign. "This is your chance," he wrote in an e-mail.
Dean, winless in nine elections, may soon come under pressure to end his campaign.
Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe has said any candidate who failed to win a state by the first week in February should assess their candidacy. Will he ask Dean to go?
"No," the chairman told NBC on Wednesday. "Howard's going to make up his own mind."