John Kerry surged into early leads last night in up to seven of the 10 "Super Tuesday" states, network exit polls indicated. If the figures are borne out in final results, the Massachusetts Senator would be within touching distance of the Democratic presidential nomination, and his lone serious rival, John Edwards, the Senator for North Carolina, left with little choice but to end his candidacy.
"Senator Edwards is going to have to make an assessment tomorrow about going forward," said Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic Party chairman and a prime architect of this year's compressed primary schedules, devised to produce a nominee as early as possible.
But the first result provided a shock, with a win for Howard Dean, who pulled out of the race a fortnight ago, in his tiny home state of Vermont, where he was governor. In all, 1,151 delegates were at stake in yesterday's primaries and caucuses: California, New York, Ohio, Georgia, Minnesota, Maryland and four New England states, led by Mr Kerry's own Massachusetts.
The prize represents more than half the total needed to nominate a candidate at July's party convention in Boston.
Before the results came in, Mr Edwards had vowed to continue the fight into next Tuesday's round of primaries in four southern states, theoretically friendlier territory for him. But unless he won at least two states last night, including one of the "Big Three" (California, New York and Ohio) overhauling Mr Kerry will be close to mathematically impossible.
Even before yesterday, when pre-vote polls showed Mr Kerry in the lead everywhere, the Massachusetts Senator had won 18 of the first 20 states, compared to his rival's one. In terms of pledged convention delegates, he leads Mr Edwards by more than three to one.
The networks put Mr Kerry ahead in New York and Ohio, but in Georgia, the southern state which the North Carolina senator was hoping to winning, the outcome was too close to call. In three states - California, Maryland and Georgia - glitches were reported with electronic touch screen voting machines being used for the first time. Civil rights groups complain the machines, which leave no trail of paper for use in a recount, are vulnerable to hackers.
But if the wide Kerry margins suggested by the exit polls held, such problems were unlikely to have affected the results. Last night there was more fevered talk of a so-called "dream ticket" coupling: Mr Kerry's gravitas and command of the issue with his rival's campaign trail appeal - which Democrats believe might be enough deny George Bush a repeat of his 2000 sweep of the South.
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