Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts could seal the Democratic deal tomorrow as 10 states choose more than half the delegates needed to win the party's presidential nomination in Boston this summer.
Mr. Kerry, the winner of 18 of 20 Democratic contests so far, is the strong favorite in most of them. As the hours before the balloting dwindled to double digits, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina groped to find some brake for the front-runner's momentum.
A strong showing at least somewhere among the 10 states could allow Mr. Edwards to sustain his credibility as a realistic rival to Mr. Kerry, along with his hopes of changing the dynamics of the race in a round of Southern primaries the following Tuesday, March 9.
On the stump and in one final debate over the weekend, Mr. Edwards sought to distinguish himself from Mr. Kerry on trade, while Mr. Kerry continued to insist that there was no substantive difference in their positions on the increasingly prominent issue.
Speaking in a Cleveland church Saturday night, Mr. Edwards promised to battle the exporting of American jobs.
“We need a president who will look at our tax code and ask a basic question: ‘Why are we rewarding companies that take [our] jobs away?''' Mr. Edwards told the crowd at the Mount Sinai Baptist Church. “This is common sense and it doesn't add up.''
Sitting in a CBS studio yesterday with Mr. Kerry and the other remaining candidates, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Mr. Edwards again pitched himself as a better candidate to protect American jobs from foreign competition.
Richard Simone is the business agent for Local 527 of the Sheet Metal Workers Union in Syracuse, N.Y. In an interview last week, he noted that his local, which represents workers at Carrier Air Conditioning, was losing 1,100 of its 1,400 jobs to foreign competition.
Mr. Simone said that trade is an issue that clearly resonates with his members but added, speaking of Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards, “Both are viable candidates; both have said the right things about trade.”
The national leaders of the Sheet Metal Workers have endorsed Mr. Kerry. Mr. Simone estimated that the registered Democrats among his members would split 60-40 for Mr. Kerry over Mr. Edwards tomorrow.
Upstate New York is one of the select regions among tomorrow's far-flung contests where Mr. Edwards has concentrated his campaigning and spent money on television advertising, in part because of the job losses at manufacturers such as Carrier. He was scheduled to campaign there again after yesterday's debate.
He could pick up some delegates from congressional districts bordering the Great Lakes.
But the majority of New York's Democrats live in the southern part of the state, in New York City and its suburbs, and Mr. Edwards appears to have no chance of winning the state overall. A poll released over the weekend by the American Research Group showed Mr. Kerry with an overwhelming lead of 54 percent to 21 percent over Mr. Edwards.
Mr. Kerry's advantage is similarly daunting in tomorrow's other major prize, California. Beyond the two largest states in contention, Mr. Edwards effectively has conceded four New England states from Mr. Kerry's backyard -Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
That leaves Georgia and Ohio as the two largest contests where Mr. Edwards may hope for a breakthrough.
But in each of them, as in every other state where ballots will be cast tomorrow, every published poll, along with the lion's share of endorsements, has been running in Mr. Kerry's direction. Ballots also will be cast tomorrow in Maryland and in Minnesota, which is the only state holding caucuses rather than a straight primary election.
After a post-debate rally in Albany, N.Y., Mr. Edwards was scheduled to spend last night in Toledo on the eve of a final day of campaigning that would take him through the Buckeye state and on to Georgia. Mr. Edwards has invested hope and campaign resources in Ohio on the theory that its significant losses in manufacturing jobs over the last few years will make it hospitable to his tough-on-trade message.
Mr. Kerry derided the North Carolinian's new emphasis on that subject yesterday, charging that Mr. Edwards “has talked more about trade in the last five weeks than in the last five years.”
And Mr. Kerry retained a substantial lead in Ohio over the weekend, according to an ARG poll, with the support of 47 percent of those surveyed compared with Mr. Edwards' 26 percent.
The closest battle between the two leading Democrats may take place in Georgia, next door to South Carolina, the state of Mr. Edwards' birth, and the only one he has captured in the nomination battle so far. Richard Ray, the president of the Georgia AFL-CIO, supports Mr. Kerry but noted that Mr. Edwards' regional appeal would be an obvious factor in the contest there.
“That will make a difference. As Southerners say, ‘He talks like us,'” Mr. Ray said. “Maybe that shouldn't be the case, but that's reality. That will make a lot of difference in Georgia.”
If Mr. Edwards cannot show signs of closing the gap with Mr. Kerry tomorrow, he will come under increasing pressure - financial and from Democratic colleagues - to close down his presidential bid.
“We're not running against John Kerry. We're running against time,” David Axelrod, an Edwards adviser, told The Associated Press last week.
But Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic Party's national chairman, said in an interview on Fox News Sunday yesterday, “We are very close to having a nominee of the Democratic Party.”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O'Toole is a reporter for the Post-Gazette. Fritz Wenzel, The Blade's political writer, contributed to this report.