Kerry claims Democratic mantle to fight Bush for presidency

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John Kerry laid claim to the Democratic presidential nomination after a decisive round of primary and caucus victories cleared the field for a head-to-head battle against President George Bush.

Senator Kerry's New York-to-California victories in the 10-state Super Tuesday series knocked the fight out of his spirited rival, John Edwards. The first-term North Carolina senator, who had been the only one left with the ghost of a chance against Mr Kerry, let the word out that he was quitting even before polls closed in the West and just as Minnesotans gathered in caucuses.

Suddenly, the Democrat-to-Democrat sniping is over, replaced by calls for unity, and Mr Kerry is left with his hard-fought reward - as well as the weight of Democrats' expectations that he can beat President Bush in the fall.

"Tonight, the message can now be heard all across our country: Change is coming to America," said Mr Kerry, aged 60, a four-term Massachusetts senator whose understated ways disguise a hotly competitive streak. "We will fight to give America back its future and its hope."

There were grace notes in the first blush of his victory: a polite exchange with President Bush, who called to congratulate him. But there is to be no grace period in their campaign fight.

The Republican president opens a multimillion-dollar TV advertising blitz tomorrow to try to win back favor in a time of slipping poll numbers, and has a war chest of more than $100 million to draw from in the months ahead, more than Mr Kerry can muster.

Vice President Dick Cheney criticised Mr Kerry on the airwaves yesterday as a frequent foe of defence and intelligence budgets, seeking to neutralise Mr Kerry's draw as a decorated Vietnam veteran and his Senate experience in foreign policy.

And the courteous phone call aside, Mr Kerry kept up the drumbeat of recent weeks against President Bush, giving him no quarter on the war on terrorism or anything else.

"We will renew our alliances and we will build new alliances because they are essential to the final victory and success of a war on terror," he told supporters.

"The President Bush administration has run the most inept, reckless, arrogant and ideological foreign policy in the modern history of our country."

Mr Kerry dominated the six-week Democratic competition from the Iowa caucuses on, once he shook off a torpid start and overcame the fading phenomenon of Howard Dean. He has won 27 of 30 contests, putting him well on his way to winning the nomination formally once he has collected 2,162 delegates.

The Super Tuesday states awarded 1,151 delegates, more than half those needed, and pushed Mr Kerry's total over 1,100. Mr Kerry had 1,292 delegates to Mr Edwards' 438. Mr Dean had 182, Al Sharpton 24 and Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich 18.

Mr Kerry won nine of the 10 states yesterday, losing only in Vermont, where voters made Mr Dean, their former governor, the sentimental favourite even though he ended his campaign two weeks ago.

In all regions and among practically all groups, voters interviewed about their choice spoke of making the same political calculation - they picked Mr Kerry because they thought he could defeat the president.

That imperative helped him win in states such as Ohio, Minnesota and Georgia, even though Mr Kerry - unlike Mr Edwards - backed trade agreements that voters blamed for costing their communities jobs.

"Mr Kerry has the breadth of experience. He's had umpteen years in the Senate working on both domestic and foreign policy issues," Angie Kline, a St. Paul, Minnesota, caucus-goer, said in explaining her vote for Mr Kerry.

Although relentlessly upbeat and dogged, Mr Edwards knew he had to quit, and aides tipped his hand on that plan on the eve of his formal departure.

"We have been the little engine that could," he told supporters. Mr Edwards proved an animated campaigner and sharp debater, but won only in his native South Carolina and posted several strong second place finishes.

He immediately started closing ranks with his rival, calling Mr Kerry an "extraordinary advocate for jobs, better health care, a safer world," and declaring: "These are the causes of our party, these are the causes of our country, and these are the causes we will prevail on come November."

Mr Kerry responded in kind, calling Mr Edwards "a compelling voice to our party" who holds "great promise for leadership for the years to come." Edwards' name will stay in play as a possible choice for running mate, although Mr Kerry has given no hint of his pick for the ticket.

Mr Kerry ordered his staff to prepare a process to review potential vice presidential candidates, senior advisers said. They said it was possible, but not likely, that Mr Kerry would choose a nominee well before the Democratic nominating convention in his hometown of Boston in July, when delegates chosen in the state contests will formalise the nomination.

Altogether, Mr Kerry won in California, Rhode Island, Ohio, New York, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland and Georgia.

For the opening of his general election campaign Wednesday, Mr Kerry picked Florida, site of the historic 2000 recount election that gave President Bush the presidency.

Mr Kerry said several of his former rivals had offered to help raise money and he was confident he could put together the necessary war chest, though it won't be easy.

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

And he told supporters to expect a rough battle.

"Before us lie long months of effort and of challenge, and we understand that," he said. "We have no illusions about the Republican attack machine and what our opponents have done in the past and what they may try to do in the future. But I know that together we are equal to this task. I am a fighter."