BARELY half of the delegates have been selected, but the race for the Democratic nomination for president is over.
Who says so?
None other than George W. Bush, who called - as presidents do to World Series or Super Bowl champions - to congratulate John Kerry after the Massachusetts senator won nine of 10 Super Tuesday primaries.
With a brutal eight-month general election battle looming, these may have been the last civil words that pass between the two. In victory, a combative Senator Kerry warned of "the Republican attack machine" and continued to hammer Mr. Bush on jobs, the war, and other issues.
The White House, bolstered by an unprecedented campaign kitty bursting with more than $130 million, is to begin running television ads today aimed at stripping the bloom from the Kerry rose, which blossomed without a lot of damaging internecine warfare during the primary season.
Indeed, Senator Kerry eased past his Democratic opponents, including the meteoric Howard Dean and the tenacious centrist John Edwards, who may have preserved a chance to run as vice president on the Kerry ticket by refusing to take the low road against his Senate colleague.
Even though Senator Kerry has not yet formally captured all the delegates necessary for his party's nomination, he's the presumptive nominee. The President is expected to attempt the same tactic Bill Clinton used against Bob Dole in 1996, which is to use the coming months to define his opponent as Republicans wish the country to see him - in this case, a feckless liberal.
While political operatives are bracing for, in the words of one, "a rough, rough campaign," the first Bush ads are expected to be positive, showcasing the President's record. Only later, as Election Day draws nearer and voters are paying closer attention, will the TV spots get down and dirty.
Anyone who can recall the infamous "Willie Horton" ad used in the 1988 campaign by Mr. Bush's father to tar another Massachusetts liberal, Gov. Michael Dukakis, knows pretty much what to expect.
With the Kerry campaign reportedly down to its last $5 million, the Democratic nominee-apparent will be hard-pressed to mount a comparable response. Instead, the senator will have to spend a great deal of his time raising money for the fall. Senator Kerry can count on some help from so-called "independent" groups that have been targeting Mr. Bush, but the money advantage rests decisively with the White House.
Senator Kerry, meanwhile, gets a kick for who knows how long from the "big mo," the momentum that comes from Democrats united as seldom seen in modern history in a common quest to recapture 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Exit polls from California to Ohio, down to Georgia, and up to Massachusetts indicated that party members across the liberal to conservative spectrum favored Senator Kerry as the candidate most likely to defeat Mr. Bush.
At the same time, political professionals note that the American electorate is polarized as never before, with polls showing wider than usual differences on issues between those who support Mr. Bush and those who favor Mr. Kerry.
Maybe this is what we've been waiting for - an election that presents, in the words of Barry Goldwater a generation ago, a choice, not an echo.
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