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.
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.
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.
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.