MILWAUKEE (Talon News) — If John Kerry, the acknowledged front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, hoped to finish off his remaining rivals in Wisconsin, he must have come away disappointed.

Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) gave his Senate colleague a scare in the dairy state’s Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday by nipping at his heels throughout the evening’s vote tallies.

Kerry, the junior senator from Massachusetts, had been heavily favored in every major poll. However, at one point Tuesday evening, he was actually trailing Edwards slightly.

In the end, Kerry emerged with 40 percent of the vote, compared to Edwards’ 34 percent. But it was hardly the knockout punch delivered to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who came in a distant third with 18 percent.

Kerry dismissed the importance of Edwards’ strong showing, saying, “A win is a win.”

Kerry remains the obvious front-runner, having won 14 of 16 primaries so far, but Edwards’ strong showing has clearly steeled the North Carolina senator’s resolve to go forward.

“We’ll go full-throttle to the next group of states,” Edwards declared.

After calling the campaign a two-man race for the last two weeks, Edwards touted himself Tuesday night as “the one candidate who can defeat President Bush in November.”

Indeed, in a state that allows crossover voting in primary elections, Associated Press exit polls show that Edwards pulled more Republican and Independent votes than Kerry and Dean combined.

Exit polling conducted by Fox News indicated a strong last-minute surge for Edwards. In fact, of those who said they had made up their minds in the last three days before the election, 53 percent went for Edwards, 22 percent for Kerry, and 16 percent for Dean.

The reason given was Edwards’ positive image. Nearly one in five voters said the most important candidate quality in their decision was that “he has a positive message.” Edwards won 60 percent of those voters.

It has been observed that when Edwards has time to connect one-on-one with voters, the positive manner and the boyish smile of this former trial lawyer seems to score points. That could mean a longer than expected primary season for the Kerry campaign, which had hoped to have the nomination sewn up before the so-called “Super Tuesday” round of primaries slated for March 2.

Edwards vows to campaign in every state holding a primary that day, although he is expected to concentrate his limited financial resources on the contests in Ohio, New York, and Georgia.

Meanwhile, the Dean campaign remains winless and, most experts agree, is now irrelevant. The former Vermont governor’s poor showing here in the state he once called a “must-win” only solidifies that assessment.

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