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Inside Politics

A debate for Democrats is when to fold cards

From Bill Schneider
CNN Political Unit

Howard Dean leaves a campaign stop at a spot called Mr. Perkins Restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Tuesday.
Howard Dean leaves a campaign stop at a spot called Mr. Perkins Restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Tuesday.

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WHEN BIDS WERE SEALED
The following are dates by which candidates in past elections officially had garnered enough delegates to declare victory in their bids to become their party's presidential nominee:

Democratic contests:
• 2000: March 14 (Al Gore)
• 1992: June 2 (Bill Clinton)
• 1988: June 7 (Michael Dukakis)
• 1984: June 6 (Walter Mondale)

Republican contests:
• 2000: March 14 (George W. Bush)
• 1996: March 26 (Bob Dole)
• 1992: May 5 (George H.W. Bush)
• 1988: April 26 (George H.W. Bush)

YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS
America Votes 2004
Presidential primaries
Democratic candidates

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Whatever the outcome of Tuesday's Wisconsin primary, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination likely will continue.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the one-time front-runner who had indicated he would end his faltering campaign if he didn't win the primary, has backed away from that stand in recent days.

Asked Tuesday if he would stay in the race if he lost the Badger State, Dean replied, "Yep. How's that for clarity?"

And he has a message for his opponents, including Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who is out front in state polls.

"This isn't done yet," Dean said. "I'm in this to win. We have more delegates to the convention that anybody else except John Kerry, and we think we can overhaul him in the 'Super Tuesday' primaries" on March 2 when 10 states choose delegates. (CNN.com's interactive Election Calendar)

Kerry has emerged as the clear leader in the race, winning 14 out of the 16 contests held so far. Besides Kerry and Dean, three other candidates continue to soldier on: Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton. (CNN.com's interactive Delegate Scorecard)

Edwards -- the only remaining candidate with a win under his belt after retired Gen. Wesley Clark dropped out last week -- has said that he wants the rest of the field to clear the way for a showdown between him and Kerry.

However, Edwards faces a problem: So far, there's no significant anti-Kerry sentiment in the Democratic Party, even in the South, where Edwards' support may be the strongest.

More than two-thirds of Tennessee's primary voters who did not vote for Kerry last week said they would be satisfied if the Massachusetts senator were the Democratic nominee, according to CNN exit polls.

Kerry's continued wins in the primaries, week after week, can only help his chances as the prospective nominee. This assessment may be especially true if his rivals keep playing nice -- as Dean did in Sunday's Wisconsin debate, sponsored by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and television station WTMJ.

Asked if he agreed with the Bush campaign's criticism of Kerry as the candidate of special interests, Dean turned his fire on President Bush.

"I think George Bush has some nerve attacking anybody about special interests," Dean said.

For Democrats, it's not such a terrible thing to have several anti-Bush voices out on the campaign trail.

"The president lied to the American people," Kucinich said in Sunday's debate.

What Democrats likely don't need are rivals with little hope of winning tearing down the front-runner. Such a process already may have begun in the Milwaukee debate.

"Sen. Kerry is entitled, as is Gov. Dean, to support free trade, as they always have," Edwards said in the debate. "The problem is what we see happening, and it's NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement], which I opposed."

Democrats have said they want the race to go on as long as the winner looks stronger, not weaker, and the principal target of criticism remains Bush.


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