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Kerry makes Southern sweep, Clark bows out

As the Kerry juggernaut rolls on, the dynamics of a multi-candidate race.

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Catch me if you can. With John Kerry's double Southern victories Tuesday, both in the double digits, that's the challenge his remaining rivals face. And after finishing third in both Virginia and Tennessee, one rival - retired Gen. Wesley Clark - ended the chase. He's set to announce his withdrawal this morning in Little Rock, Ark.

For Senator Kerry, last night's wins prove he's viable in the South as well as the West and the Northeast, giving him the momentum of a steamroller. Just a month ago, Kerry was polling in the single digits in both Virginia and Tennessee. But on Tuesday, he won more votes than native Southern sons Sen. John Edwards and General Clark combined.

Senator Edwards won among voters whose top worry was the economy, while those upset about Iraq tended to pull the lever for General Clark. But exit polls showed that most voters believed Kerry has the best chance of winning come November - and, as elsewhere, that "electability quotient" was key.

"The curtain has just been brought down by the voters in Virginia and Tennessee," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "He's proven to be viable nationally, he's won convincing victories in every region. Not only does he not have a peer, he's six or seven grade levels above every other candidate. This really is the critical night."

For Clark, who placed an anemic third in both races, the pressure of Kerry's commanding wins reached a critical mass, overriding his campaign's earlier plan to stay in the race at least through next week. Now, with Clark bowing out, only Edwards and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean - who cut short his campaigns in Virginia and Tennessee - have pledged to stay in.

That could be either very good, or very bad, for the Democrats. It would be bad for the party, experts say, if Dr. Dean and Edwards start adding their own voracious attacks to GOP criticism of Kerry - damaging Kerry in voters' minds and forcing him to spend more money between now and Super Tuesday's pivotal races March 2.

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