As results continued to pour in from around the state, Kerry maintained a narrow 5 percent lead over Edwards. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean trailed far behind in third.
“The motto of the state of Wisconsin is ‘forward,’ and I want to thank Wisconsin for moving this campaign and this great cause forward,” Kerry told supporters Tuesday night.
In his victory speech, the Massachusetts senator continued to take aim at President Bush, criticizing his handling of the war in Iraq, the economy, and healthcare.
Kerry confidently proclaimed that he would unseat the president in the general election.
“Wherever we go, we’re feeling the power of change that is sweeping across this nation,” Kerry said.
Despite Kerry’s victory, it was Edwards’ strong second place finish that caught political observers by surprise. Edwards hailed his showing, saying it would put pressure on Kerry’s campaign ahead of the March 2 “super primary” when 10 states will hold primary elections.
“Today the voters of Wisconsin sent a clear message and the message is this: objects in your mirror may be closer than they appear!” Edwards said to cheering supporters Tuesday.
“The people of Wisconsin spoke loudly and clearly today they want a debate they want this campaign to continue,” Edwards said.
A few moments after Edwards began speaking to his supporters, Kerry took to the stage for his own victory speech, a move that some political observers said was a deliberate attempt to upstage Edwards on national television.
Kerry was the clear Democratic frontrunner going into the Wisconsin contest with victories in 14 out of 16 primary elections. Edwards won the South Carolina primary and Retired Gen. Wesley Clark won the Oklahoma primary before dropping out of the race and endorsing Kerry.
Tuesday night exit polls, however, showed Edwards had more than a 10-point lead among independents and an even larger lead among Republicans, who made up a larger group than in any of the other primaries this year — more than one in 10 voters.
“That means I can beat George Bush,” Edwards told CNN Tuesday night.
Though Kerry had maintained a substantial lead in most opinion polls, Edwards gave what was considered a strong performance in a Sunday night debate and picked up the endorsements of two of Wisconsin’s largest newspapers in the closing days of the campaign.
“For Democrats, then, the challenge is to nominate the man who can take his party’s common vision for the nation and convince voters that it offers the right course for America. That man, in our judgment, is Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina,” the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel editorialized Monday.
In Sunday’s debate, which was held at Marquette University, Edwards sharpened his criticism of Kerry. Edwards said Kerry’s support of NAFTA had led to large job losses in Wisconsin and, after Kerry answered a question about taking responsibility for supporting the congressional resolution that authorized President Bush to go to war in Iraq, Edwards said that Kerry had given “the longest answer I’ve ever heard to a yes or no question.”
When Kerry later said he believed he would defeat President Bush in the general election, Edwards objected.
“Not so fast, John Kerry,” Edwards said. “We’re going to have an election here in Wisconsin this Tuesday. And we’ve got a whole group of primaries coming up. And I, for one, intend to fight with everything I’ve got for every one of those votes.”
Dean campaign officials had said they hoped to avoid a “knockout” blow in Wisconsin and despite his distant third place finish the former governor told supporters “we are not done.”
Dean focused on what he said was his campaign’s role as a force for change in American politics.
“You have already started to change the Democratic Party and we will not stop,” Dean said. “We have a long way to go. In order to fundamentally change America we have to change Washington, the Democrats and Republicans.”
Dean, however, did not say specifically what the Wisconsin results mean for his candidacy or whether he would consider endorsing another candidate should he decide to leave the race, but he did allude to the upcoming Democratic convention.
“You have already written the platform for the Democratic Party for this election,” Dean said.
At one point Dean said if he did not win Wisconsin he would withdraw. Dean later said that supporters have asked him to remain in the race even if he is defeated in the Dairy State. The Dean campaign will reportedly “regroup” in Vermont on Wednesday in order to decide how to proceed.
Dean has said he believes he is gaining ground on Kerry, but his campaign will “regroup” in Vermont after Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary.