ATLANTA — John Edwards hunted for votes Saturday in Super Tuesday states where he saw the best prospects for slowing John Kerry's march to the nomination, portraying himself as the Democrat who can attract the most independents and swing voters.
"I am a good closer," the North Carolina senator said, predicting a come-from-behind surge and shrugging off polls that show him behind in all 10 states choosing delegates Tuesday.
Kerry returned east after two days of campaigning in California and picked up the endorsements of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and his son, Andrew Cuomo, who was Housing secretary in the Clinton administration.
Kerry, campaigning in New York, rejected a suggestion made this week by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to cut Social Security benefits for future retirees. He said he would "take the politics out of Social Security" by forming a commission of experienced statesmen who are no longer running for office to advise on the future of the program.
"We should not be funding George Bush's tax cuts by cutting benefits for Social Security," Kerry said. "Period. End of issue."
With three days to go before the biggest showdown of the primary season, Kerry stuck to his criticism of Bush in anticipation of a general election fight. Edwards made a conference call to former organizers for Howard Dean in 10 states to enlist their support in his underdog primary campaign.
He told them he realized that many had not made up their minds, but appealed to them to join his campaign, promising to carry their fight for change forward, Edwards campaign manger Nick Baldick told reporters.
"I think support from 'Deaniacs' is critical right now. In states that are close, 'Deaniacs' are going to make a huge difference," Baldick said. One convert, Ryan Beam of Cleveland, founder of Generation Dean, an organization aimed at college and other youthful voters, said he was supporting Edwards because "he clearly has the charisma and appeal to younger people that Howard Dean had."
Many Dean supporters already have lined up behind him, and "we're moving forward" with their help, Edwards told a rally in Atlanta's Fox Theater. "All of us believe we need real change."
The former Vermont governor, once the presumed front-runner, bowed out of the race winless after a disappointing third-place finish in the Wisconsin primary 1 1/2 weeks ago.
Kerry campaigned Saturday night in Brooklyn, and at a town-hall meeting listed to the story of disadvantaged young people like 22-year-old Michael Parker of East Harlem.
Parker said can't afford to school and searched for six months before finding a minimum wage job at a drug store. He said Kerry was "a cool brother" for coming to hear their stories.
Both Kerry and Edwards were spending Saturday night in New York to prepare for Sunday's televised debate, the final one before Super Tuesday, which offers more than half the 2,162 delegates needed to win the nomination. Edwards said he will spend Tuesday night in Atlanta.
Edwards campaigned in Georgia and Ohio on Saturday and was in Minnesota on Friday. His advisers believe the three afford him the best opportunities to advance, but they conceded that odds of an Edwards breakout were long.
On the way to New York, Edwards stopped at Cleveland and spoke at a Baptist church.
Earlier, in a speech in Augusta to the Georgia Association of Black Elected officials, Edwards said he appeals not just to Democrats but across party lines.
"I have been attracting all these independent voters that we have to get to win an election," Edwards said.
He cited crossover votes in primaries where he has done well, including his lone win in South Carolina and strong second-place finishes in Iowa and Wisconsin.
But Al Sharpton of New York told the same group of black elected officials that Democrats are "doing our party a disservice" by trying to figure out whether Kerry or Edwards could pick up the most support from Republicans and independents.
"It's a flawed strategy that we must become more Republican to win," said Sharpton, who remains in the Democratic race despite lagging far behind the two leaders.
He said a vote for him would give him more delegates and more leverage at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in late July. Otherwise, "They will cut a deal and leave you with nothing," he said.
Edwards advisers believe that he has the best chance in Georgia, Ohio and Minnesota, with a good opportunity to pick up delegates from upstate New York and in California.
Speaking with reporters in Augusta, Edwards promised to keep going, even if he does poorly in all Super Tuesday states.
But, he said, "I believe we will do well Tuesday night, and I think, going to the following week, there's a group of states where we will naturally be strong." Four Southern states — Texas, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi — hold contests March 9.
With liberals often dominating Democratic primaries in New York and elsewhere, the Cuomo endorsements were considered a major plum for Kerry.
"I spoke to the senator last night, and I'm delighted and pleased to endorse him," said the elder Cuomo. "His superiority, at least to us, is clear."