Senator Kerry's Super Tuesday victories sets up an eight-month-long campaign against President Bush for the White House.
President Bush acknowledged his rival with a call of congratulations to the Massachusetts senator shortly after the first votes were counted. “He called to congratulate me. I said I hope we have a great debate about the issues before the country,” said Senator Kerry in an interview with the Associated Press .
The one state that did elude the 60-year-old senator yesterday was Vermont, which went to its former governor, Howard Dean, weeks after he had dropped out of the race.
It was a bittersweet salute to a candidate who had briefly soared as his party's front-runner and a reminder of the tumultuous path Senator Kerry and the other candidates had traveled to yesterday's decisive result.
Senator Kerry had an easy time in Ohio, taking more than one of every two votes.
Senator Kerry entered the nomination battle with high expectations last year. But as the Dean insurgency ignited, his campaign appeared to have stalled.
Well into the winter, he was running far behind in polls, even in his neighboring New Hampshire. But after a staff shakeup and a risky decision to concentrate his resources on the Iowa caucuses, Senator Kerry surged to the lead of the Democratic pack and never looked back.
Senator Kerry offered special thanks last night to the gatekeeper states that revived his chances. He lauded “the people of Iowa and New Hampshire who gave me a hearing when no one thought we had a chance.”
At a time of concern over national security, he capitalized on his experience as a veteran lawmaker, but even more, from his record as a decorated Vietnam veteran.
He was frequently accompanied on his campaign appearances by members of the crew of the small patrol boat in which he saw combat on the rivers of Vietnam.
Senator Kerry will have little time to savor his hard-fought victory - one that seemed almost inevitable in recent days, despite the fact that few pollsters or analysts would have predicted it as late as the turn of the year.
President Bush's amply funded campaign will launch its first commercials tomorrow. Senator Kerry, on the other hand, heads toward the nomination with the task of trying to refill a war chest drained by the running battle against his Democratic rivals.
Exit polls yesterday found that, as in earlier contests, jobs and the economy were the chief concerns of the primary and caucus voters. Senator Kerry has assailed the administration's economic record, deriding Mr. Bush for the fact that he has presided over a net loss of American jobs throughout his administration. Mr. Bush has pointed to positive economic news on other measures, such as productivity and profits and argues that they are leading indicators of a long-awaited increase in employment.
The administration's talking points against Senator Kerry are equally clear. GOP officials have already tried to brand him as a New England liberal out of touch with the vales of most of the country.
A reminder of some of the social issues that will dot the campaign landscape came yesterday as Senators Kerry and Edwards took a brief detour from the campaign trail to cast Senate votes in favor of a continued ban on the possession of so-called assault rifles. President Bush thrust another to the fore with his call for a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Senator Kerry, who says he opposes gay marriage but supports some sort of civil union for gays, criticized President Bush's proposal last night.
“He proposed to amend the Constitution of the United States for political purposes,” Senator Kerry charged.
Mr. Kerry's record as a decorated, wounded veteran, complicates Republican attempts to portray him as soft on defense, but GOP officials have repeatedly charged that his post-Vietnam record suggests that he cannot be counted on to guard a nation buffeted by terrorism.
Vice President Dick Cheney carried that argument in television appearances hours before Senator Kerry's victories yesterday.
“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, and eliminate many major weapons programs,” Mr. Cheney said.
Senator Kerry responded on the security issue last night with a well-worn phrase from his months of campaigning. If President Bush, he said, “wants to make national security the central issue of the campaign in 2004, I have three words that I know he understands - bring it on.”
Beyond the demands of fund-raising, the presumptive nominee faces choices on the identity of his vice presidential selection.
Much early speculation has centered on Senator Edwards, who proved himself the most effective stump speaker in the campaign.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O'Toole is a reporter for the Post-Gazette. The Associated Press contributed to this report.