Kerry got a boost when ex-rival Wesley Clark endorsed him in Madison five days before the state primary.
(CNN) -- Democratic front-runner Sen. John Kerry narrowly defeated Sen. John Edwards in the Wisconsin presidential primary, CNN projects. The win was the Massachusetts senator's sixteeth first-place finish in the 2004 primary season. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean ran a distant third.
Exit polls showed that more than half of Democratic voters had made up their minds in the last three days and almost half of those voted for Edwards.
Dean and Edwards, the senior senator from North Carolina, both described themselves as Kerry's main competitors for the nomination, and said a strong showing in Wisconsin would invigorate their campaigns heading into the March 2 primaries, in which more than 1,150 delegates were at stake.
They insisted Wisconsin's progressive, independent voters -- who they said would pick a candidate based on thoughtful, heartfelt analysis, and not return the generally pro-Kerry verdicts of other states -- were just what was needed to reshape the race.
Yet Kerry headed into the primary with a solid lead indicated in state polling over Edwards and Dean. But those numbers were added up before Sunday's debate and before Edwards picked up the endorsement of two newspapers in the state. And in the 2004 race, nothing is guaranteed for the front-runner.
In December 2003, Dean led all Democrats in Wisconsin and most everywhere else. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel poll then gave him a 25-percentage point lead over the rest of the field.
At that stage, Kerry's Wisconsin director, George Twigg, admitted few gave his candidate's campaign much of a chance. "We weren't getting any oxygen," he said.
Then came Kerry's surprising victory in the January 17 Iowa caucuses, followed by big wins in New Hampshire and 12 of the next 14 states, mostly by substantial margins.
A February 9 Journal Sentinel survey of 666 likely Wisconsin primary voters showed 45 percent support for Kerry, well ahead of retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark with 13 percent, Dean with 12 percent and Edwards with 9 percent. (The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.)
But trailing candidates nonetheless banked heavily on Wisconsin.
Dean put the most on the line.
After losing Iowa and New Hampshire, Dean refocused his energies on Wisconsin, abruptly canceling events in Michigan on February 5 to attend a rally in the state capital of Madison.
Dean campaigned in Wisconsin more often than any other state except Iowa and New Hampshire. He employed 50 people at the start of 2004, and brought aboard another 50 to work out of eight campaign offices in the weeks before the primary.
In a February 5 fund-raising e-mail to supporters, Dean said he would be "out of the race" if he didn't win in Wisconsin. Days later, he reversed himself, saying he would not "quit" on his supporters and challenging Badger State voters.
Dean emphasized his honesty and zeal to stand up to President Bush while he slammed Kerry, singling out the four-term senator's relationship with special interest groups.
"My question to Wisconsin is, 'Who do you want to stand with you in the foxhole, the guy who'll stand up when it's right or the guy who just stands up when it's popular?'" Dean said, repeatedly disparaging Edwards and Kerry as "Washington insiders." (Full story)
But the former governor never regained ground, finishing third in the state primary. He ended his presidential bid a day later.
Edwards stopped short of calling Wisconsin his own must-win state, and although he did not campaign there much until the week before the primary, he apparently realized he might have a chance for a good showing.
"It looks like it's narrowed itself down to a two-person race now, and we're excited about our prospects," Edwards told supporters in Milwaukee on the night of the Tennessee and Virginia primaries, echoing a claim made by Dean. "We're going to have a campaign and an election, not a coronation."
Clark never made the trip north, despite spending $50,000 on TV ads in Wisconsin between February 1 and 7, more than any other candidate, and his second-place standing in the February 9 Journal Sentinel poll.
He had the backing of Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton and was the second Democrat (Dean was the first) to air commercials in the state, starting in January. In early February, Clark said, "We're going to move ahead. Wisconsin looks very good for us."
But he quit the race February 11, a day after finishing a disappointing third behind Kerry and Edwards in the Tennessee and Virginia primaries. Clark then endorsed Kerry two days later. (Full story)
Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York remained in the Wisconsin contest, but neither figured to rank significantly in the state or national race.
State voters, meanwhile, grew increasingly fond of Kerry in January and February -- even though he didn't campaign in Wisconsin all that time.
On February 13, the senator visited the Badger State for the first time since the state party convention last June. His state staff had consisted of only two people before beefing up to 50 in the two weeks before the primary.
His late charge was formidable. Three Wisconsin members of Congress -- Sen. Herb Kohl and Reps. David Obey and Ron Kind -- backed Kerry a week before the primary. And while Gov. Jim Doyle didn't endorse the senator (or anyone else), the two did appear together at a town hall meeting before the primary.
His rivals didn't give up hope. Dean and Edwards repeatedly challenged Wisconsin voters to stay true to their progressive, autonomous political legacy -- and not to simply "rubber stamp" earlier primary and caucus results.
"You want to see the candidates, hear what they have to say and you're going to make your own independent decision about who to vote for -- am I right about that?" Edwards asked an audience in Janesville on February 11.
"This state doesn't take its cues from pundits or previous results," said Michael Spahn, Dean's Wisconsin press secretary, a week before the primary. "The voters don't really know that they're supposed to just go along with what happened in the earlier states."