WASHINGTON - John Kerry effectively clinched the Democratic presidential nomination last night, scoring a series of decisive primary victories, including in Maryland, that left his rival John Edwards signaling that he's quitting the race.
Kerry achieved a near sweep of the 10 coast-to-coast Super Tuesday contests - the biggest nomination fight to date - and emerged as the Democrat who will take on President Bush in an intensive fight for the White House.
"Before us lie long months of effort and of challenge," a hoarse Kerry told jubilant supporters assembled in Washington's Old Post Office Pavilion. "Together, we are equal to this task. I am a fighter."
With a huge haul of delegates up for grabs, Kerry captured victories in California and New York, as well as in Georgia and the pivotal battleground state of Ohio.
The results marked the culmination of a two-month winning streak for Kerry. After a sluggish showing in early polls, he surged ahead of his rivals with early victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. Scoring high with Democrats who said their top priority was defeating Bush, Kerry then built a powerful momentum that deprived his opponents of the chance to gain much traction.
Last night, Edwards scrapped plans to campaign and instead headed home to Raleigh, N.C., where he is expected to announce today that he is abandoning his bid. His withdrawal will clear the way for Kerry to seize the party's nomination and kick off a new phase in the campaign, pitting the Massachusetts senator against the president in an eight-month slugfest.
Bush called Kerry from the White House last night to congratulate him on winning the nomination "against a tough field," said Scott Stanzel, a Bush campaign spokesman.
During the brief call, the president said he expected "a spirited race," Stanzel said. Kerry thanked the president and told Bush that he hoped the two could "keep it to the issues."
Kerry's lopsided victory in Ohio, a state Edwards had targeted, apparently persuaded the North Carolina senator to abandon his bid. Edwards had spent the past two weeks pushing for breakthrough victories there and in Georgia and Minnesota, hoping that capturing those states could save his candidacy.
Kerry prevailed narrowly last night in Georgia and overwhelmingly in Minnesota. He also claimed victories in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Edwards' wide margins of defeat in several contests yesterday and his failure to add to his one victory in the campaign - in his native South Carolina - placed him under intense pressure to quit.
"I am proud of the fact that you and I, together, have brought these issues back to the American debate: race, equality, civil rights, poverty," he told a roomful of cheering supporters last night in Atlanta, stopping just short of conceding. "We have been the little engine that could, and I am proud of what we've done."
The one-term senator had said in recent days that he would stay in the running even if he failed to win any of the Super Tuesday matchups. But with Kerry collecting a hefty share of delegates from yesterday's contests and no additional victories in Edwards' column, it seemed impossible for his campaign to survive.
Howard Dean, who dropped out of the race last month after plummeting from wealthy front-runner to cash-strapped long shot, won his home state of Vermont, where his name had remained on the ballot and devoted supporters made a show of loyalty for their former governor.
Many Democrats had pushed for Edwards to bow out of the race if he failed to defeat Kerry in yesterday's crucial slate of races. They are eager to put the intraparty contests behind them and pour their resources into beating Bush in November.
"We need to get a nominee," Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic national chairman, told CNN. "We need to be unified, organized, getting our message out there."
Bush is to begin airing his first television campaign ads tomorrow - his campaign's first real opportunity to answer the harsh criticism Democrats have piled on the president during the primary process.
"There's now about to be a two-way conversation," Ken Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager, told CNN yesterday. "The American people have a very important choice to make. We're now going to talk about the clear choice that Americans will face on Nov. 2, 2004."
Democrats said they were ecstatic over Kerry's near sweep of the Super Tuesday states - a sign, they said, that he is a consensus candidate with national appeal. Indeed, Kerry's Super Tuesday victories reflected broad support for the four-term senator among Democratic voters throughout the country - from coastal states to Midwestern manufacturing centers, and from New England to the South.