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Kerry cements Demo nomination

Edwards is expected to quit race today after primary defeats

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John Kerry cemented the Democratic presidential nomination, driving rival John Edwards from the race with a string of Super Tuesday triumphs that catapulted the Massachusetts senator into an eight-month struggle to oust President Bush.

"Change is coming to America," Kerry said, capping a remarkable comeback that began this year with his candidacy on the brink of extinction in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Dominating all comers, the four-term lawmaker won 27 of 30 elections as each victory fed on the next in a swell of momentum that no rival could overcome. From Edwards' Southern strongholds to the jobs-poor Midwest states of Ohio and Michigan to the growing Southwest battleground of Arizona to his own New England base, Kerry racked up victories in a six-week primary season that amplified Democratic criticism of the Republican incumbent.

In state after state, Democrats said their top priority was a candidate who could defeat a wartime president with a $100 million-plus campaign treasury. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, won an overwhelming number of their votes and now leads a relatively united party against Bush.

"I am a fighter, and for more than 30 years I have been on the battle lines, on the front lines, for fairness and mainstream American values," Kerry told cheering supporters in Washington, D.C., promising to close tax loopholes, offer new incentives for manufacturers, protect the environment, raise the minimum wage and cut health-care costs.

The crowd shouted along with him as Kerry delivered his signature line: "If George Bush wants to make national security the central issue of 2004, I have three words that I know he understands — Bring it on."

Strategists in both parties say the general election may be one of the nastiest in memory, with both camps seeking to energize their core supporters. In a polarized nation, there are fewer swing voters to be courted with warm-and-fuzzy politicking, they say.

Pivoting quickly to the Nov. 2 election, Kerry ordered his staff to immediately put in place a process to review potential vice presidential candidates, according to senior advisers. They said it was possible Kerry would choose a nominee well before the Democratic nominating convention in his hometown of Boston in July.

Aides said Kerry had grown frustrated with Edwards' claim that he was the only candidate who could beat Bush, but not enough to preclude his consideration for a vice presidential nomination

Seizing the party's reins, Kerry planned significant changes at the Democratic National Committee, aides said. His first campaign stop will be today in Florida, site of the historical 2000 recount election that gave Bush the presidency.

His poll ratings slipping, Bush begins a multimillion-dollar TV ad blitz Thursday designed to bolster his political fortunes. Kerry is prepared to dip into Democratic Party coffers to pay for his own ads, but Bush has a huge cash advantage.

Briefly setting aside their differences, Kerry took a congratulatory call from Bush.

"You had an important victory tonight," the president told Kerry, adding that he looked forward to a "spirited fight."

Hours earlier, Bush had dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney to TV studios to criticize the presumptive foe. "He very clearly has over the years adopted a series of positions that indicate a desire to cut the defense budget, cut the intelligence budget, to eliminate many major weapons programs," Cheney said of Kerry, a 19-year Senate veteran.

Kerry called Edwards, whose lone win before Super Tuesday was South Carolina, "A great voice for our party." He commended another fallen rival, Howard Dean, in an effort to unite the party.

Calling Kerry "my friend," Edwards told supporters in Atlanta, "He's been an extraordinary advocate for causes that all of us believe in."

The freshman senator from North Carolina stopped just short of conceding, but two Democratic officials said on condition of anonymity that Edwards would step aside today in Raleigh, N.C.

Kerry rolled up huge Super Tuesday triumphs in California, New York, Ohio, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Minnesota and his home state of Massachusetts, as well as a razor-thin win in Georgia. Dean denied Kerry a sweep, winning his home state of Vermont two weeks after dropping out of the race.

In all, 10 states with a combined population of 94 million — one-third of the U.S. total — awarded 1,151 delegates, more than half of the 2,162 needed to seize the nomination.

Kerry, a 60-year-old senator, had 1,039 delegates to Edwards' 349. Dean had 182 and Al Sharpton 22.

"The issue that drove me is getting rid of Bush, and that led me to Kerry," said Ron Debry, 47, of suburban Cincinnati. "Maybe Edwards someday, but I don't think he's ready yet."

Exit polls showed Kerry dominated among Democrats of all philosophies and all stripes. No matter who they picked Tuesday, voters seemed comfortable with Kerry as the nominee: About eight in 10 voters said they would be satisfied if he won the Democratic race.

And his support came from across the landscape: from men and women, blacks, whites and Hispanics, and voters of all age and income groups, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and TV networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.

Edwards made U.S. trade agreements a centerpiece of his campaign, and exit polls show voters were sympathetic to his arguments: Some 60 percent said trade takes jobs from their states.

But even among these voters, some six in 10 voted for Kerry, double Edwards' take.

Democratic interest groups, required to act independently of the Kerry camp, plan to soon air ads critical of Bush.

Kerry declined to talk about his advertising or other general election strategies, but said he will be able to compete against the cash-flush Bush.

"The president has an enormous lead. He has extraordinary sums of money ... and we're going to have to fight hard to raise money and compete," Kerry told The Associated Press.

He said several of his former rivals had offered to help raise money.

In a preview of a potential general election fight, Kerry and Edwards took a Super Tuesday time-out in the Senate to vote for extending the ban on military-style assault weapons.

Two other candidates, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Sharpton of New York, had no chance of winning the nomination. In a bit of cold comfort, Kucinich won his primary for re-election to the House.

Kerry was the last man standing from a crowded field.

Among those eliminated along the way: Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas and Dean.

Dean entered the year the undisputed front-runner, but finished behind both Kerry and Edwards in Iowa on Jan. 19. His candidacy imploded as Kerry's soared.