Biggest question for Tuesday: Who drops out?
If Kerry wins most of the seven states holding primaries and caucuses, several of the contenders could withdraw.
A glance at the candidates' schedules tells the story of expectations on the eve of the Feb. 3 primaries and caucuses: While John Edwards, Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, and the others campaigned furiously all day Sunday, many hopscotching to multiple states, John Kerry took the luxury of sleeping in before a rally at a Fargo, N.D., museum.
Then the Massachusetts senator changed his schedule so he could watch the entire Super Bowl from a Fargo sports bar. Of all the states holding Democratic presidential nominating contests Tuesday, North Dakota has the fewest delegates at stake, 14.
For a campaign that had finally found its groove, it was a day to bask in good news, as polls showed Mr. Kerry leading in most Feb. 3 states and competitive in the others. Even the hometown New England Patriots obliged by winning the Super Bowl.
But in a Democratic nomination race marked by wild twists and turns - the stunning decline of Dr. Dean's campaign and the just as stunning resurrection of Senator Kerry's - no one is comfortable making definitive predictions of how many contests Kerry will win Tuesday. It's possible, though, that Kerry could sweep all seven.
On the eve of voting in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, the horse-race handicapping centered on how much the field would shrink after Tuesday, allowing those left standing to refill their campaign coffers and keep fighting.
The Zogby tracking poll released Monday showed Kerry ahead of his nearest rival, Senator Edwards of North Carolina, 50 percent to 15 percent in Missouri, the state richest in delegates. Zogby also had Kerry leading in Arizona at 40 percent, with the next-highest total going to General Clark, who had 27 percent. Edwards is leading in his native South Carolina at 30 percent, five points ahead of Kerry. Clark and Kerry are in a dead heat (28 percent to 27 percent) in Oklahoma, with Edwards at 19 percent.
Dean has opted to leap over the Feb. 3 states, where he's polling poorly, and focus instead on two states holding Feb. 7 caucuses: Michigan and Washington. He has pledged to stay in the race no matter how he does on Feb. 3. Edwards has said he will quit if he loses South Carolina.
If Clark and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman win nothing on Feb. 3, "I think they're out. So I guess the real question is less what does Kerry have to do, but what the others have to do," says Stephen Wayne, a campaign analyst at Georgetown University. "If Edwards wins South Carolina, I think with the other two dropping out as I expect probably would happen, it may turn into a two-person race, Kerry versus Edwards."
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, says the Feb. 3 result will be "not definitive but very suggestive." His outlook: Kerry wins Missouri and Arizona handily, and probably wins Delaware and North Dakota. The other races are close.
National Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe telegraphed his own prediction Sunday by foreshadowing a general election contest between President Bush and Kerry. Mr. McAuliffe, appearing on ABC's "This Week," compared Kerry's Vietnam War record - calling him "a war hero with a chest full of medals" - and Bush's own service in the Texas Air National Guard, highlighting old questions about Bush's assignment to serve in Alabama in 1972.
McAuliffe's tough rhetoric comes at a time when Bush is back on his heels over the question of Iraq's so-far-nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and over the administration's 2005 budget plan released Monday, projecting a $521 billion deficit. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the size of the projected 2005 budget deficit.]
With the Feb. 3 contests spread around the country, voter reactions shed some light on how Kerry might be perceived on the national stage in November. Peter Padilla, a military veteran from Tempe, Ariz., plans on voting for Kerry Tuesday, because he's a veteran and because as a senator he has been responsive to the needs of veterans.
That Kerry has taken lobbyist money won't keep Mr. Padilla from casting his ballot for him. "He's not doing anything that anybody else isn't doing. That's just part of Washington," says Padilla, a sociologist at Arizona State University.
The "liberal" tag worries him more. Liberal to him means somebody who might be interested in weakening the Second Amendment: "I don't hear gun control, I hear gun elimination."
Susan Kricun of Phoenix, a registered Democrat, says she'll vote in the primary only if she feels she knows the candidates well enough. "I've heard John Kerry's name a lot, that's about it," she says, adding that the "liberal" label wouldn't prevent her from voting for Kerry.
"I considered myself to be liberal," she says. "It just tells me that he's a little more open-minded, rather than being right or left wing."
The Feb. 3 voting also marks the first primary in a Southern state, South Carolina. This fall, there will be discussion over whether a Democrat can win the presidency without winning a Southern state.
Even though it's technically doable, it would be difficult. So while Kerry has gotten great mileage so far for his perceived "electability," at least compared with Dean, he would still face a steep climb against Bush in the South.
"Clearly there are real barriers for succeeding in the South in the fall," says Jay Barth, chairman of the political science department at Hendrix University in Conway, Ark. "It's a combination of Kerry's geographical origins, and it's also a personal style that is not particularly warm and fuzzy. Certainly, his military background could be packaged into a positive in the region."
Dr. Barth says that Bush has honed a personal style that plays well in the South. In contrast, Southerners will see Kerry's voting record as a Northeastern liberal as a problem. Kerry could find a way to make a few states competitive focusing on particular issues that play well in certain states, such as the environment in Florida or choosing a running mate from the South.
"Kerry is a real problem in the South," says Barth. "He has shown some real signs of energy as a candidate, but it's hard to see him as successful in the South on a wide scale."
• D.J. Burrough in Arizona and Suzi Parker in Arkansas contributed to this report.