From today's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
Kerry holds commanding lead - Senator has huge margin in Wisconsin, poll indicates
John Kerry hasn't set foot in Wisconsin in eight months.
He didn't run a TV ad here until Friday.
No Democrat above state legislator has endorsed him.
But according to a new poll, all of that is overwhelmed by the political wave Kerry is riding.
Among likely voters in Wisconsin's Democratic primary next Tuesday, 45% are supporting the Massachusetts senator, followed by former NATO commander Wesley Clark at 13%, ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean at 12% and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards at 9%.
An additional 17% were undecided in the statewide survey, which was taken Wednesday through Saturday by Market Shares Corp. for the Journal Sentinel and WTMJ-TV.
The poll suggests the dimensions of the challenge facing Kerry's rivals as they spend the next week parked in Wisconsin, hoping to shake up a contest that has been shaped by the front-runner's big assets: momentum, electability and acceptability.
"A lot of this is being driven by momentum, or the perception of momentum, or the perception of inevitability. But nothing is inevitable here," said Peter Shakow, state director of the Clark campaign. "Wisconsin voters really have the chance to change the direction of this race."
The poll underscores how Kerry's support has snowballed since his victory in the Iowa caucuses Jan. 19. Of his supporters in Wisconsin, two-thirds decided for Kerry in the three weeks since Iowa. Edwards was the other candidate to show late movement: 29% of his supporters decided on their preference just since last Tuesday, when seven states voted. Edwards carried one, South Carolina.
"Democratic voters from the East Coast to the Midwest to the West Coast have said that John Kerry has the most effective message and that he's the best candidate to beat George Bush," said Bill Burton, a Kerry spokesman in the state.
The Wisconsin survey of 666 likely voters sheds some light on the role electability is playing. Asked what they want in a Democratic candidate, 50% said someone they agree with on issues, and 43% said someone who can beat Bush. But the majority of Kerry supporters said it was someone who can beat Bush. The majority of Clark, Dean and Edwards supporters said it was someone they agree with on issues.
Those polled were upbeat about Kerry's chances of beating Bush.
Two-thirds rated Kerry's prospects of winning in November as good or excellent, while 20% said "only fair" and 6% said poor.
The poll also pointed to another obstacle facing Kerry's rivals: He is strong across the board - among men, women, Democrats, independents, in different parts of the state - and he isn't stirring much negative feeling in the party, even among those who support his opponents.
Asked if there was a candidate they would not like to see become the nominee, 34% said Dean, 18% said Clark, 7% said Kerry and 6% said Edwards. Among Dean supporters, only 13% said Kerry was someone they would not like to see be the nominee. Among Clark supporters, the figure was 19%, among Edwards supporters, 16%.
Hostility toward other candidates was much higher in some cases. Among Clark supporters, 47% said they wouldn't want Dean to be the nominee; among Dean supporters, 38% said they wouldn't want Clark to be the nominee.
Dean aide Mike Spahn said it didn't surprise him that a third of those polled said Dean was someone they wouldn't want to be the party's presidential candidate.
"We took a beating as front-runner right as people started tuning in," he said. "It's now time for other candidates to go through the wringer."
State's primary is open
Wisconsin has an open primary where independents and even Republicans can vote. In the Market Shares survey, Democrats made up 61% of those polled. The survey counted people who "leaned" toward a candidate as supporting that candidate.
Kerry's rivals all eye the state as the last, best opportunity to reshape the campaign. One reason is the role that independent voters play. A bigger one is that it's the only major primary after New Hampshire where the candidates will focus on a single state for as much as a week, a state where TV time is relatively cheap.
But despite the things that set Wisconsin apart, the battle in the state begins with the same dynamic - the Kerry bandwagon - as elsewhere. Despite spending little money in the state, and having little institutional support and virtually no personal presence, Kerry has jumped out to a big lead. Clark, by contrast, spent more than $500,000 in TV ads from early January to early February. Clark, Dean and Edwards all have spent more time in the state. Dean and Clark staffed up in larger numbers much earlier.
"We understand the importance of actually coming here and talking to voters. Kerry has not been here since June," said John Kraus, who has been running Edwards' campaign in the state. "Wisconsin voters are not looking at this as anointing a king."
Shakow of the Clark campaign said "obviously Kerry is the front-runner," but he said the race was still fluid.
Dean aide Spahn said, "Wisconsin has a proud tradition of bucking the pollsters and pundits."
Kerry aide Burton said the campaign has now stepped up "pretty aggressively," opening new offices late last week in Milwaukee, Wausau, Eau Claire, Green Bay and La Crosse. It has had an office in Madison. Staff was expanded from two last week to 50, Burton said Monday.
Kerry's first announced appearance in the state this year is Friday in Madison.
Dean has made the state his chief focus since last week. Edwards will be with supporters tonight at Serb Memorial Hall to watch returns from the Virginia and Tennessee primaries, then will begin traveling the state Wednesday. Clark plans to appear in Madison on Wednesday and campaign around the state Thursday.