The field for the Democratic presidential nomination narrowed further yesterday when the retired general Wesley Clark gave up his short-lived bid, leaving John Edwards as the only candidate with a chance of halting the Massachusetts senator John Kerry.
General Clark bowed to the inevitable after dismal third-place finishes in Virginia and Tennessee on Tuesday, two southern states on which the former Nato commander had pinned his hopes. Short of money, and with no realistic prospect of further success, he formally announced his decision in a press conference in his home town of Little Rock, Arkansas.
After belatedly entering the contest in September, General Clark emerged as Howard Dean's main challenger when it seemed as if the former Vermont governor would carry all before him. In the last three months of 2003, General Clark raised $15m (£8m) in campaign funds.
He enjoyed the informal blessing of Bill Clinton, and many of the former president's senior advisers joined his campaign. But he repeatedly showed his political inexperience, initially stumbling over his position on the Iraq war and betraying ignorance of several significant domestic policy issues. The fatal blow came in Iowa, where General Clark did not compete. His gamble was that Mr Dean would win, and that as a military man with strong national security credentials, he would emerge as the "stop-Dean" candidate.
Instead, Iowa chose Mr Kerry, a decorated Vietnam war hero, depriving General Clark of much of the rationale for his candidacy. In New Hampshire the following week, his support ebbed as Mr Kerry's surged. On 3 February he won his only primary victory in Oklahoma.
Fundraising became difficult, forcing General Clark to suspend salaries for many campaign workers. His withdrawal was inevitable after he failed to manage a second place on what should have been friendly turf.
Final returns showed Senator Kerry winning 52 per cent of the vote in Virginia and 41 per cent in Tennessee. Mr Edwards came second, with 27 per cent in each state. As the results came in, some Democratic elders increased pressure on Mr Edwards and Mr Dean to withdraw, arguing that neither had a realistic chance of ultimate victory and that the priority was to unite the party behind Mr Kerry in the overriding cause of defeating President George Bush.
But neither opponent seemed ready to take the hint. Speaking in Wisconsin, where the next important primary takes place on 17 February, Mr Edwards said that voters "want an election, not a coronation". Mr Dean also vowed to carry on to so-called "Super Tuesday" on 2 March, when 10 states hold primaries and caucuses.
These states include California, the richest prize of all, as well as the two other "mega-states" of New York and Ohio. More than half of the 2,162 delegates needed for a majority at the July nominating convention in Boston will be at stake on 2 March.
However impressive his string of victories - in 12 of the 14 primaries and caucuses thus far - Mr Kerry has only 516 pledged delegates, according to the Associated Press, less than a quarter of the number needed for victory. Mr Dean has 182, Mr Edwards 165, and General Clark 105.
Mr Kerry is behaving as if the primaries are already over, ignoring his rivals and concentrating his fire on Mr Bush.
It appears that the pattern will continue in Wisconsin, a state where Mr Dean once said that victory was essential if his candidacy was to stay alive.
Wisconsin has a habit of going for outsiders - but probably not this time. Polls show Mr Kerry far ahead of Mr Edwards, with Mr Dean a distant third.
But for all Mr Kerry's strength, and the anointing by commentators of Mr Edwards as the perfect vice-presidential running mate, influential Democrats feel that the story may yet have surprises ahead.
Mr Clinton told USA Today: "A lot of times things happen late in the race that sometimes make a difference and sometimes don't." The former president was reflecting a desire to see a face-to-face debate between Mr Kerry and Mr Edwards, whose campaign has attracted much praise, but who has had to compete with Gen Clark for the same pool of votes.Reuse content