WASHINGTON In an anti-Bush voting spree, Democrats are racing through their front-loaded election calendar to crown a presidential nominee making John Kerry all but unstoppable in the delegate chase.
But their rush to judgment could backfire in the heat of a general election contest if Kerry escapes the nomination fight untested by a front-runner's usual pitfalls: gaffes, mini-scandals and buyers' remorse.
While a confident Kerry looks ahead to the fall, laying plans for a multimillion-dollar ad campaign against President Bush, his rivals are begging voters to take a second look. They have one week to slow Kerry's momentum, or the race may be over.
''You have the power to keep this debate alive,'' Howard Dean said Monday in Wisconsin, site of a Feb. 17 primary that every campaign views as a decisive showdown. Dean, the race's dominating force until his sudden fall a month ago, blamed the media and pundits for the premature coronation.
Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark complained that ''this election is flashing past so fast that for so many Americans they can hardly tell the difference between the candidates.''
Sen. John Edwards' spokesperson, Jennifer Palmieri, said voters ''need to let this process go a while to make sure we're ferreting out the best candidate.''
But the process wasn't designed to go a while.
Led by chair Terry McAuliffe, party leaders eliminated the traditional weeks-long gap between New Hampshire's primary and subsequent elections to ensure a nominee emerges by mid-March.
Without that lull, there was nothing to stop Kerry's momentum once he won Iowa and New Hampshire. He piled up eight more victories against two losses and is poised to take two Southern states today.
Polls show Kerry comfortably ahead in Virginia and Tennessee while aides for the race's two Southerners, Edwards and Clark, privately acknowledge they expect to lose. That would cripple both candidacies, and give Kerry the standing to claim he is the only viable candidate.
If they stay in the race, Wisconsin may be the last stand for Kerry's rivals because:
Edwards hopes that Dean will criticize Kerry, giving the North Carolina senator a shot at emerging as an upbeat alternative. But there is no guarantee that Dean will go negative, especially if Edwards remains in the race.
Dean hopes that Edwards and Clark drop out after today, leaving him as the only alternative to Kerry. But even Dean knows that the harshest criticisms won't close a 30-point gap, and the latest poll had Kerry beating him 41 percent to 9 percent in Wisconsin.
Clark hopes he can finish second to Kerry in Tennessee to keep his candidacy afloat, but he nearly bowed out of the race Feb. 3, and will face pressure to do so again.
All three camps privately acknowledge their only hope is for Kerry to stumble. While weaving all sorts of dark scenarios about how that might happen, aides say their money will soon dry up after Feb. 17 if they don't break through in Wisconsin.
Kerry's rise, like Dean's ascent last year, is a product of the hunger to beat Bush. Democrats want a winner, thus they're uniting behind Kerry and his election victories just as they rallied to Dean when he led in off-year polling and fund raising.
Voters in the early Democratic contests said in exit polls that a top quality in a candidate is the ability to beat Bush. They voted overwhelmingly for Kerry.
An official close to the Massachusetts senator, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kerry plans to tap into the Democratic National Committee's $15 million treasury to buy TV ads as soon as Bush does.
The president's ads are expected to air immediately after the Democratic nomination fight is settled.
Though he refused to declare a winner, McAuliffe gleefully discussed the prospects for a quick end to the Democratic race and a start to the fall election.
''We can't be having a primary fight going on all the way through the spring, allowing Bush to spend $200 million to distort our nominee's record,'' McAuliffe said. ''Once I've got a nominee, I'm raising money hand over fist.''
The money will allow the DNC to spend millions of dollars a week to counter Bush's ad campaign.
Unless the dynamics of the race change quickly, the money and the nomination will go to Kerry. An uneven campaigner who stumbled as the early front-runner last year, Kerry could escape the primary season without a second, more severe test. A candidate who decries special interest influence could face Bush without a full vetting of his 19-year Senate record.
''It will be over,'' said Sally Taylor, a 35-year-old Democrat who joined a crowd of 1,000 at a Kerry rally last weekend. ''And I'll hardly know the guy I voted for.''
''But,'' she said, ''I'll have a winner.''
Ron Fournier has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 1993.
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