MILWAUKEE — John Edwards and Howard Dean plunged Saturday into a final weekend of campaigning across Wisconsin, hoping to trip up the front-running John F. Kerry and send the Democratic presidential fight into March, when California and other big states have their say.
Edwards insisted he would continue his campaign regardless of the outcome of Tuesday's primary here. "People want this process to go on," the North Carolina senator told reporters after a raucous rally in Madison. "They want Democratic primary voters to have a choice."
Dean -- who had declared Wisconsin a must-win state for him, then changed his mind -- sent mixed signals about his intentions. During an interview with a Chicago-area television station, Dean was vague about what he intended to do if, as polls indicate, he runs far behind Kerry on Tuesday. "You'll find out on Wednesday," Dean said.
Kerry kept with his promise to campaign in every state, appearing in Nevada in advance of Saturday's caucuses -- which he won overwhelmingly -- then flying to Wisconsin to attend the state Democratic Party's fundraising bash in Milwaukee. Kerry also easily won caucuses in the District of Columbia.
At the Milwaukee gathering, he took a swing at President Bush and his reelection campaign for an Internet ad noting that Kerry, who often attacks special interests, has taken large donations from lobbyists.
"Yesterday, George Bush chose to make his first official campaign message to the American people a negative attack ad sent through the Internet. And if this is the campaign he wants to run, then we're ready," the Massachusetts senator said. "We'll stand our ground ... And we'll give this country the honest debate that it deserves."
Edwards also appeared at the event after a quick detour to Los Angeles for a Friday night of fundraising and an appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."
He offered his familiar refrain of an America divided by wealth and class, and vowed that "with the right leadership we will build a country that works for everyone, not the privileged few."
Dean had an abbreviated Saturday campaign schedule, visiting with African American ministers in Milwaukee, then holding a town hall meeting in Racine before heading home to Burlington, Vt., for his son's high school hockey game. The trip meant Dean missed the Wisconsin party fundraiser.
"We hope that the voters of Wisconsin respect the governor's commitment to his family," said spokesman Jay Carson. "It's probably not the popular thing to do, but it is the right thing for his family."
After Wisconsin, the rapid-fire pace of the campaign slows a bit, with just a few small-state contests before March 2. On that day, California, New York, Ohio and seven other states will cast ballots that will allot more than 1,100 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
Most analysts say anything short of strong showings in Wisconsin will make it difficult for Dean or Edwards to sustain serious campaigns.
Kerry has won 14 of the initial 16 primaries or caucuses. Dean has won none; Edwards has won his native South Carolina, but finished a distant second on Tuesday in Virginia and Tennessee.
That makes Wisconsin pivotal for Dean and Edwards. But the state has drawn close attention for another reason: It has the distinction of hosting the first stand-alone contest since the New Hampshire primary nearly three weeks ago.
Edwards has made job losses the theme of his campaign here, a resonant issue in a state that has shed 80,000 manufacturing positions in the last three years -- the eighth-highest loss, on a percentage basis, in the nation.
Dean has urged Wisconsin voters to strike back at the news media, "which [tell] us the race is over and the Washington insiders have won."
"On Tuesday," his TV spots intone, "Wisconsin can be a rubber stamp, or you can vote for real change."
Kerry, who took two days off at midweek, has spent less time in Wisconsin than his rivals. But his TV ads highlighting his Vietnam War service and sustained coverage of his victories elsewhere have made him a constant presence.
All three of the candidates are to debate today in Milwaukee, along with longshots Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York.
Wisconsin, with its rolling pastures and belching smokestacks, is a state rich in political history. There are legends like Robert LaFollette, a giant of the Progressive era, and rogues like Joseph McCarthy, whose name has entered the popular lexicon as a synonym for demagoguery.
The state has produced such mavericks as former Sen. William Proxmire, a Democrat famed for spotlighting government spending excesses, and Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Democrat who defied the leaders of both major parties and worked with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona to push through landmark campaign finance reform legislation in 2002.