SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 26 -- Win or lose in next week's Super Tuesday primaries -- and lose is a distinct prospect in many of the 10 states at issue -- Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) says he intends to continue contesting for delegates with his front-running rival, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.).
But Edwards faces a giant hurdle in his bid to stay alive for the Democratic nomination: matching Kerry's organizational muscle as the race wears on. Just days before Tuesday's showdown, the North Carolina senator is not just way behind in delegates and victories. He is at a big disadvantage in many of the Super Tuesday states in money, staffing and media attention.
California, where Edwards has spent the past two days campaigning, is Exhibit A in the Edwards vs. Kerry arms race. Edwards is struggling here. In a poll released Wednesday, 60 percent of likely California voters said they favored Kerry to 19 percent for Edwards, leading Edwards's state campaign director, Herb J. Wesson Jr., to describe his chances of winning as a "Hail Mary pass."
The candidate also is an underdog in New York, which offers the second largest trove of delegates with 236. Edwards's New York operation got going in earnest after Feb. 3, when the candidate won his only primary, in South Carolina, said Terence Tolbert, Edwards's New York campaign director. While Edwards has picked up a few endorsements in New York -- from the mayors of Rochester and Albany -- he is a southerner up against a four-term senator from a nearby northeastern state who has been collecting endorsements in the state for months.
Tolbert acknowledges that Kerry's field operation is better funded and more extensive than the 1,500-volunteer force Edwards has, but adds that he is not concerned. "They're going to run the race they're going to run," he said, "and we're going to run ours. I didn't have money to start with, so I've never depended on it. If I had a choice between money and people, I'd take the people, anyway."
Since none of the March 2 primaries is winner-take-all, Edwards said he hopes to continue winning some percentage of the delegates even if he finishes second. He said Thursday that his "best opportunities" are in Georgia, Ohio and Minnesota. New York and California "are tougher," he said.
Nick Baldick, Edwards's campaign manager, said the race's momentum will start to turn in Edwards's favor on Super Tuesday, and "then we'll take our chances" on March 9, when four southern states vote. A showdown could come March 16 in Illinois. "After Illinois, the candidate with the most momentum will pick up huge gobs of delegates," he said.
Edwards took valuable time on Tuesday and Wednesday from his swing through Super Tuesday states to travel to Houston. Texas is not holding a primary next week; Edwards's mission was to attend a fundraiser Tuesday night before flying back into action in California.
The campaign is conserving dollars by limiting its television advertising to parts of Georgia, Ohio and New York, although Edwards is not on the air in New York City, which is the most expensive media market in the country.
Edwards is hoping to close the gap with Kerry by relying on free media coverage of his campaign that stresses optimism and is driven by his considerable personal magnetism. Campaign strategists are counting on two debates -- one on Thursday night in Los Angeles, the other on Sunday in New York -- to showcase Edwards's debating skills and to provide the most unencumbered side-by-side comparison with Kerry to date.
Otherwise, Edwards has not varied much from his stump speech this week, which means he has generated few headlines. This has made him an afterthought in the escalating exchange between Kerry and President Bush.
Edwards seemed at times to consciously avoid making news. On Monday, he offered such a noncommittal response to reporters' questions about the growing violence in Haiti that some fear he may have exposed his foreign policy inexperience. His response to Bush's support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage was so convoluted (he is against gay marriage but against an amendment, but supports states determining whether they support an amendment) that aides abruptly cut short a news conference on the issue Tuesday in Atlanta.
Edwards avoided the subject altogether during a stop in this city, despite multiple questions from reporters. San Francisco began marrying gay couples earlier this month.
Indeed, Edwards's best effort to get back in the news was to tacitly recognize that he has been marginalized in the Kerry-Bush battle. "Today, I have a message for someone in Washington: Not so fast, George Bush," he said Tuesday in Atlanta after Bush opened his campaign with a speech attacking Kerry. "You don't get to decide who our nominee is."