WASHINGTON Even defeat is kind to Sen. John Kerry, not that the Democratic front-runner has tasted much of it in the latest round of presidential primaries and caucuses.
Winner of five primary and caucus states on Tuesday night, Kerry faltered only in South Carolina and Oklahoma.
But Sen. John Edwards took one and retired Gen. Wesley Clark the other, leaving the two men in a struggle to emerge as the main alternative to the Massachusetts senator.
''It's a big day for John Kerry. He certainly appears to be well on his way to the nomination,'' said Steve Murphy, who was campaign manager for Rep. Dick Gephardt, an early casualty in the race.
''The only question is who is going to be the last man standing'' against him, he added.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman conceded it won't be him. The party's 2000 vice presidential candidate dropped out of the race. The self-described voice of moderation never found a viable campaign niche in an era of intense political polarization.
Increasingly, it seemed unlikely to be Howard Dean. The one-time front-runner said he intended to remain in the race, even though he failed to finish above third place in any of the states on the ballot.
''We're going to pick up some delegates tonight and this is all about who gets the most delegates in Boston in July and it's going to be us,'' he told his supporters.
Not many, though.
Of the 269 pledged delegates at stake Tuesday night, an AP analysis showed Kerry winning 128, Edwards 61, Clark 49, Dean seven and Al Sharpton one, with 23 yet to allocated. Rep. Dennis Kucinich got none.
''If Dean continues for another two or three weeks he'll turn himself into another Kucinich,'' said Merle Black. The Emory University politics professor didn't mean it as a compliment. Kucinich generally pulls in the low single digits.
''It's Kerry's race to lose right now,'' added Black. ''He comes out way ahead in the delegates and there appears to be no one else on the scene who appears capable of stopping him.''
Kerry won primaries in Arizona, Delaware and Missouri as well as caucuses in New Mexico and North Dakota, and is the only man in the field to win delegates in all seven states on Tuesday's ballot.
He said he, not Edwards, was running a nationwide race. ''You don't cherry pick the presidency,'' he jabbed at Edwards' southern strategy.
Interviews with voters leaving their polling places said Kerry benefited from the perception that he was the candidate best positioned to defeat President Bush this fall.
The Massachusetts senator drew the support of least two-thirds of the voters in Arizona, Delaware and Missouri who said they cared most about replacing Bush, an Associated Press survey of voters showed.
Even Democrats who didn't vote for Kerry appear fairly comfortable with him. Large majorities of voters ranging from about 70 percent in Oklahoma to more than 80 percent in Delaware said they would be somewhat or very satisfied if he wins, exit polls showed.
Officially, the Kerry campaign had said the Massachusetts senator's goal for the night was to gain more of the 269 delegates at stake than any of his rivals.
Still, in the week since his double-digit victory in the New Hampshire primary, Kerry campaigned for a seven-state sweep that could turn the race for the nomination into a rout.
Even before the night's results were known, he was looking ahead, lining up an endorsement from the 1.2 million-member American Federation of Teachers and anticipating more success in Saturday caucuses in Michigan and Washington.
Neither Dean nor Edwards nor Clark appears determined to put up much of a fight in those two states, with 204 delegates between them.
Looking further ahead, Kerry also moved aggressively to prevent Edwards and Clark from expanding their support into Virginia and Tennessee, both of which hold primaries next Tuesday.
Officials said the Massachusetts senator intended to buy television advertising time in the heavily populated northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington, an expensive proposition neither rival had yet committed to.
David Espo has covered presidential politics for The Associated Press since 1980.
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