Bolstering his status as the frontrunner in the Democratic presidential race, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) has overtaken former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the contest for Congressional endorsements.
Riding a wave of momentum built on his victories in last month’s Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, Kerry now has 42 backers — six Senators and 36 House Members.
Dean has 37 Congressional supporters as voters in seven states prepare to cast ballots today in the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“We are the only candidate running a national campaign,” said Kerry deputy campaign manager Steve Elmendorf. “We are the only campaign going to [Members’] states and a lot of [them] want a campaign that is going to be active in their state.”
Elmendorf added that the campaign will convene a meeting on Capitol Hill Wednesday to woo undecided Members. A similar meeting occurred last week and netted the support of Reps. Sander Levin (Mich.) and Jay Inslee (Wash.), among others.
Dean spokesman Jay Carson suggested that Kerry was trying to have his cake and eat it too by touting his latest support.
“When he wasn’t getting many endorsements he spoke often of how little they matter, and now that he’s getting a few more he seems to think they matter a lot,” Carson said.
Voters head to the polls today in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Carolina — the biggest delegate day of the primary process to date.
Polling shows the Massachusetts Senator leading in five of these contests; Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) holds the edge in South Carolina, while retired Gen. Wesley Clark leads in Oklahoma.
Elmendorf dismissed both Edwards and Clark, charging that they are both running “one-state campaigns.”
Kerry’s campaign hopes that by winning a majority of states today he will become the de facto nominee, although Dean and Clark have pledged to soldier on in the nomination fight.
Both Michigan and Washington state have caucuses on Saturday, and Maine holds its caucuses on Sunday. Virginia and Tennessee hold primaries on Feb. 10, while one week later voters in Wisconsin head to the polls.
Dean has pledged to remain in the race all the way until March 2 — Super Tuesday — when California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont all hold primaries.
The cavalcade of Congressional endorsements flowing to Kerry over the past two weeks bears an eerie resemblance to the march of Members to Dean earlier in the year.
Bolstered by strong fundraising numbers and a growing sense of inevitability, Dean passed the Member count of Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), the former House Democratic leader, one week before the Iowa caucuses.
But Dean’s campaign hit a roadblock, both nationally and within the halls of Congress, with his third place finish in Iowa and now-legendary speech to supporters following that loss. Dean is not advertising in any of the states voting today and maintains that he does not need a victory to keep his campaign afloat.
Several Dean backers disagree with that assessment. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) told Roll Call last week that Dean must win at least one state today, with Arizona and New Mexico as his best options.
Kerry and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) are making direct appeals to Members backing Dean as they argue that now is the time to switch allegiances.
The hiring of Elmendorf, a longtime top aide to Gephardt, has also boosted Kerry’s Member presence.
Four Members who had endorsed Gephardt — Reps. Lois Capps (Calif.), James Clyburn (S.C.), Patrick Kennedy (R.I.) and Ed Pastor (Ariz.) — are all now with Kerry.
Kerry’s increasing strength among Members comes even as he decries the influence of Washington special interests on the political process — a mantra first used by Dean to further his image as a Washington outsider.
It also comes as Dean attacks Kerry for the campaign contributions he has received from lobbyists.
“This is yet another instance of John Kerry having it both ways,” said Carson. “Whether it’s the [Iraq] war, No Child Left Behind or even endorsements, John Kerry’s position is almost always situational.”
Elmendorf remained unruffled. “We keep gaining strength, but we are taking nothing for granted,” he said.