MILWAUKEE, Feb. 15 - Despite a more aggressive effort by Sen. John Edwards, Sen. John F. Kerry emerged mostly unscathed from Sunday night's debate and seemed closer to locking up the Democratic nomination over his fading rivals.
Edwards, in his own understated way, admonished Kerry, hitting the front-runner for promising spending and tax cuts the government can not afford and for delivering a long-winded explanation of his vote for the Iraq war.
But Edwards's effort to differentiate himself was mild as attacks go and did not seem likely to change the dynamics of a race that appears to many Democrats all but over. While Edwards did try to draw distinctions, former front-runner Howard Dean had nothing but kind words and sounded like a candidate on his way out of the race.
After winning 14 of the first 16 states, most by wide margins, Kerry essentially won Sunday's debate by not blowing it. There is no historical precedent for a candidate such as Dean (0 for 16) or Edwards (1 for 16) coming back from such a clear and consistent drubbing in every corner of the country.
Short of a scandal, leading Democrats predict, Kerry will officially wrap it up sometime next month, perhaps around March 2, Super Tuesday, when delegate-rich states from New York to California weigh in.
Edwards and Dean are both clinging to the fading hope that iconoclastic Wisconsin will shock the nation as it did in 1960, when voters picked John F. Kennedy over their well-liked neighbor, Minnesota Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey. Indeed, Edwards fashions himself as a 21st-century version of JFK -- young, handsome and optimistic.
Although Edwards's numbers have spiked a bit, public and private polling suggests another JFK will win Tuesday -- John Forbes Kerry. A recent American Research Group poll showed Kerry holding a 37 percentage point lead over Edwards, which squares with some other surveys. Edwards has vowed to stay in, win or lose, while Dean will retreat to Vermont, where aides predict he will call it quits. A top Edwards adviser hedged a bit last night, suggesting the senator might reevaluate his candidacy if he does not register a "respectable" second-place showing.