Kerry and Edwards prepare for showdown

Over the next fortnight, John Kerry and John Edwards will wage war for the Democratic presidential nomination. The climax will be so-called "Super Tuesday" on 2 March when 10 states hold primaries and caucuses - New York, California, Ohio, Maryland, Georgia, Minnesota, and four New England states, including Mr Kerry's base of Massachusetts.

The showdown became inevitable after Tuesday's Wisconsin primary, which Mr Kerry won with 40 per cent followed by Mr Edwards with 34 per cent. The final outcome was far closer than predicted by the final polls which put the Massachusetts senator 20 points ahead.

According to exit polls, the late swing reflected a surge of backing for Mr Edwards among independents and Republicans allowed to vote in the open primary - a trend seized upon by the Edwards camp. "These are the very people we as the Democratic party need to win a general election," David Axelrod, a top adviser to the North Carolina senator said.

Even so, Mr Edwards remains a long shot. With 15 wins in the first 17 contests, his rival has dominated a contested primary season as no other Democrat in recent times. Despite his "Massachusetts liberal" label, Mr Kerry draws support from all sections of the party.

However narrow, victory in Wisconsin has widened his lead in the hunt for the 2,162 delegates needed to clinch the nomination at the July convention in Boston.

According to the Associated Press, Mr Kerry now has 608 delegates, against 190 pledged to Mr Edwards. Although the fate of the 201 delegates collected by Mr Dean was unclear last night after his withdrawal from the contest, Mr Edwards will have to dominate Super Tuesday to catch up.

His problem is time - or rather the lack of it. The dazzling campaigning skills and engaging personality of Mr Edwards invariably impress voters as they see him up close, only for the campaign to end too soon. "Two or three more days and I honestly think we would have won Wisconsin," he said yesterday.

Now the North Carolina senator has just 12 days to get across his compelling 'Two Americas" message, promising to heal the country's social and economic divisions, in 10 very different states.

His near-win on Tuesday surely guarantees much flattering coverage by a media looking for a new angle. But even this may not be enough to close the gap with Mr Kerry, who has just gained the important endorsement of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organisation of US labour unions.