Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts knocked Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, rolling to easy victories in big “Super Tuesday” primary states. Campaign aides told NBC News that Edwards would withdraw Wednesday.
Kerry waltzed to big wins in primaries in New York, Ohio, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland and Rhode Island, while NBC News projections based on surveys of voters as they left polling places indicated similarly large victories in California’s primary and in party caucuses in Minnesota. And while Edwards had hoped for an upset in Georgia that could have kept his campaign alive for another week, projections showed that Kerry would narrowly win there, too.
Kerry was denied a 10-for-10 sweep only because former Gov. Howard Dean finally won his first contest, at home in Vermont.
Edwards said nothing about his plans at a rally Tuesday night in Atlanta, but he referred to his own campaign in the past tense and hailed Kerry as “an extraordinary advocate for causes all of us believe in.”
NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell reported that Edwards was flying to North Carolina, where he would formally announce his withdrawal Wednesday afternoon. His campaign issued an e-mail message inviting supporters to a “special announcement” at a high school in Raleigh.
Kerry praises Edwards
Although he did not formally claim victory Tuesday night at a rally in Washington, Kerry thanked the voters, who he said had “truly made this a Super Tuesday.” He promised: “We can and we will win this election.”
Kerry also extensively praised Edwards, who many Democrats believe would be a strong vice presidential candidate for the fall campaign. Although Kerry told NBC affiliate WHDH-TV in Boston that it was too soon to be thinking about a running mate, The Associated Press, quoting senior advisers, reported that Kerry had ordered his staff to put together a process to review potential candidates.
Calling Edwards “a valiant champion of the values for which our party stands,” Kerry said: “There is no question that John Edwards brings a compelling voice to our party, great eloquence to the cause of the working men and women of America, and great promise of leadership for the years to come.”
About an hour earlier, Kerry took a call from President Bush in the White House. Sources with the Bush campaign told MSNBC-TV that Bush congratulated Kerry on winning the nomination and said he looked forward to a spirited fall campaign.
A Democratic source told MSNBC that Kerry, who was surprised by the call, thanked the president and responded that he hoped “we can have a real debate on the issues, and I hope we will both serve our country the best we can.”
Otherwise, the campaign was celebrating his wins Tuesday, which gave Kerry 27 victories in the first 30 contests of the primary season.
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As a result, Kerry was expected to win a large majority of the 1,151 delegates on the table Tuesday for the party’s convention in July. Including earlier primaries and publicly stated commitments from so-called Democratic “superdelegates,” Kerry was more than halfway to the nomination by midnight, having racked up 1,386 convention delegates to Edwards’ 446, according to NBC News’ calculations, which were incomplete pending final results of Tuesday’s voting.
Dean saves some face
The first race to be decided Tuesday was in the primary in Vermont, where Dean, the onetime front-runner whose campaign imploded after disappointing showings in the early contests, salvaged some pride by swamping Kerry in his home state.
Although he dropped out of the race last month, Dean remained on the ballot in Vermont and easily beat Kerry, with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Kerry had led Dean in final opinion polls, but Dean benefited from Edwards’ failure to get on the ballot in Vermont, eliminating the chance that anti-Kerry voters would be split.
Dean was low-key about the victory, releasing a statement thanking the voters. He told reporters at a basketball game at the University of Vermont, “I'm not going to get back in it, but I think having some delegates is great.”
Only 15 delegates were at stake in Vermont, and it was Edwards who was presumed to be the most notable roadblock to Kerry’s nomination, especially in Southern states that Democratic strategists believe they must win if they are to have a chance to oust Bush.
But even had he stayed in the race, Edwards was guaranteed to remain the longest of long shots. Kerry already had more than a 4-to-1 lead over Edwards in delegates before Tuesday, and his wins in the big states of California (the crown jewel of the entire nominating season, with 370 delegates), New York (236), Ohio (140) and Massachusetts (90), in addition to Connecticut, Maryland, Rhode Island, Georgia and Minnesota, will only add to his lead.
Kucinich, Sharpton lag
The two other major Democratic candidates, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton, largely ran well in the back of the field Tuesday night.
Kucinich’s best showing was a surprisingly strong third place in Minnesota’s caucuses, where he was polling nearly 20 percent, less than 10 percentage points behind Edwards and more than enough to win at least some delegates to the national convention. Kucinich also won the Democratic primary for re-election to his House seat in Ohio.
Sharpton ran a disappointing third, with 8 percent, in his home state, New York. He told reporters that he would “sit down and discuss” whether to remain in the race.
Kerry and Edwards, meanwhile, had to interrupt their campaigns Tuesday to return to Washington to cast Senate votes to extend the ban on assault weapons and require checks of the backgrounds of buyer at gun shows, both of which passed despite intense opposition from the National Rifle Association.
Kerry has been keeping his eyes on a November match-up with Bush, ignoring Edwards on the campaign trail and focusing his attacks on the president’s economic and foreign policy. He planned to make his first campaign stop Wednesday in Florida, the site of the historic recount election that gave Bush the presidency in 2000.
Bush was set to return fire Thursday, formally engaging Kerry with the launch of his first television ads in 17 battleground states.
NBC’s Stephanie Maceachern, Norah O’Donnell, Kelly O’Donnell, Elizabeth Wilner and Sheldon Gawiser and MSNBC’s Dugald McConnell and Becky Diamond contributed to this report.