Kerry, the liberal Massachusetts senator, could face a serious challenge winning a diverse group of states far from his native New England, particularly among more conservative Sunbelt voters. But the front-loaded nomination system created by Democratic Party boss Terry McAuliffe gives a premium to the headline hype generated in Iowa and New Hampshire.
UP FOR GRABS. The worst-case scenario for Kerry would be a victory in just three states, even if it included the biggest prize of the night, Missouri. The best-case scenario would be a sweep that would all but wrap up the nomination.
So what does the landscape look like in the seven showdown states? Here's a sneak peek (in descending order of delegates at stake):
Missouri (74). Because all of the candidates expected Missouri to be an easy win for favorite son Dick Gephardt, none of the other contenders built field organizations here. Gephardt's withdrawal from the contest created a vacuum, and it has been filled by The Man with the mo, a.k.a. John Kerry.
In a Jan. 27-29 Zogby tracking poll, Kerry led by a country mile -- 45%, to 11% for second-place finisher John Edwards, and 9% for fading former frontrunner Howard Dean. Because advertising is so expensive in the biggest prize of the Feb. 3 contests, it will be difficult for the non-Kerrys to catch the leader.
Arizona (55). The second-largest delegate cache of the day is in the key swing state of Arizona, where growth among the Latino population and an influx of former Californians have made the state competitive, particularly in the general election. Kerry has erased an early Dean lead, and polls show him now comfortably ahead. Still, retired General Wesley Clark and Dean have targeted Arizona and are likely to pick up some delegates here.
South Carolina (45). This is a must-win for native son John Edwards. Even Edwards, who represents his adopted state of North Carolina in the Senate, admits that he's out of the running if he can't win here. Yet winning might not be so easy. The Jan. 27-29 Zogby tracking poll shows Edwards running neck-and-neck with a surging Kerry, with Dean and Clark running far behind.
The Rev. Al Sharpton registered just 5% in the Zogby poll, despite his heavy schedule of campaign appearances in a state where African Americans are expected to make up as much as 40% of the primary electorate. Unless Sharpton improves in the next week, it's hard to see how he makes much of an impact outside of the urban Northeast. As a Presidential vote-getter, "he's not Jesse Jackson," declares independent pollster John Zogby.
Edwards is pulling out all the stops and is spending liberally on TV advertising in a desperate dash to the finish line. His small-town success story and positive-policy agenda resonate with voters, but there's not enough time for Edwards to spread the word one rally at a time.
Fact is, the campaign has moved from the retail to the wholesale phase, and Edwards can't meet enough voters for word-of-mouth to mean much. Kerry has the backing of two of the state's most important Democrats: Senator Fritz Hollings and Representative Jim Clyburn, South Carolina's only African-American congressman.
Oklahoma (40). This is Wes Clark's last stand. He has the best organization in the Sooner State, the endorsements of numerous Democratic officials, and the biggest bankroll. If he can't win here, he won't win anywhere.
Unfortunately for Clark, he's splitting the moderate vote with Edwards and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. Still, Oklahoma is inhospitable turf for Yankee liberals. And unless he's blown away by a Kerry tornado, Clark still has a decent chance to win here.
New Mexico (26). The Land of Enchantment is Dean's best chance for a breakthrough. New Mexico has a lot of very liberal Democrats, and the ex-Vermont governor has the support of a number of Latino lawmakers. He also has the backing of powerful government employee unions.
Still, polls show Kerry running strong among Latinos, and, of course, he has force of recent wins on his side. What's more, Dean is running low on cash and has been forced to forgo TV commercials.
Clark is trying to siphon some votes away by reminding voters that his Sunbelt roots make him a stronger general-election candidate. But in a caucus situation, Dean's well-organized troops will give it their best shot. If he loses here, it could presage trouble in the big caucus battle of Feb. 7 in Michigan.
Delaware (15). The two candidates most aggressively pursuing delegates in Delaware are long shots Lieberman and Sharpton. But despite the state's large African-American population, Sharpton is polling just 1% of the vote, according to a Jan. 27-29 American Research Group (ARG) tracking poll.
Since nobody is willing to spend big bucks to advertise in the expensive Philadelphia media market (the only way to beam commercials into Delaware), the voters most likely will favor the candidate who gets the most -- and best -- free publicity. Unless something changes in a hurry, that's Kerry. He's leading the ARG survey with 27%, to 16% for Lieberman and 14% for Dean.
North Dakota (14). Forgotten but not gone, North Dakota Democrats will caucus on Feb. 3. The question is: Will anyone show up? Not many candidates have. The contest here most likely will reflect national trends. That would mean a Kerry win. A Jan. 26-28 poll conducted by Minnesota State University shows Kerry in front of runner-up Clark, 31% to 15%, with others running far behind.
Overall, things are looking very good indeed for the senator from Massachusetts headed into a 7-state delegate bonanza. Is the race over? Let's ask President -- I mean Howard -- Dean. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online