WASHINGTON (AP) -—John Kerry vanquished his Dixie-bred
rivals in Virginia and Tennessee on yesterday, all but unstoppable
in his march toward the Democratic nomination with a Southern sweep
that extended his dominance to every region of the country.

And after finishing third in both primaries, Wesley Clark, the
novice politician with four-star military credentials, abandoned
his presidential bid yesterday. The retired Army general will
return to Little Rock, Ark., today to announce his departure from
the race, said campaign spokesman Matt Bennett.

“Americans are voting for change — East and West,
North and now in the South,” Kerry declared to the roar of
supporters in Fairfax, Va., chanting, “Kerry!
Kerry!”

John Edwards, Wesley Clark and Howard Dean clung quixotically to
the hope that Kerry would stumble on his own or by scandal, but
party leaders began pressing for the nomination fight to end.

Kerry was pocketing about half the vote in Virginia — with
Edwards of North Carolina a poor second and Clark of Arkansas a
distant third. Kerry crushed Edwards and Clark in Tennessee.

Dean, the fallen front-runner, finished in single digits in
Virginia and Tennessee, the latter the home state of political
benefactor Al Gore. Dean had already retreated with his staggering
campaign to Wisconsin, site of a Feb. 17 primary.

Edwards, a successful trial lawyer before entering politics,
tells voters at every stop that he is the only candidate who could
beat Texas-reared Bush in his own backyard, the South, yet he lost
to a Massachusetts Brahmin in Dixie. Edwards will remain in the
race, aides said yesterday, pointing to his troubled campaign to
Wisconsin and March 2, when 10 delegate-rich states hold
elections.

“We’re going to have an election, not a
coronation,” Edwards told cheering supporters in
Milwaukee.

With some Southern comfort, Kerry has won 12 of 14 contests
— seven by nearly half the vote — on the East and West
coasts, in the Midwest, the Great Plains and the Southwest.

Awash in confidence, Kerry planned to take today and tomorrow
off to nurse a cough and make telephone calls from home in
Washington. He focused on Bush, not his party foes.

“The wreckage of the Bush economy is all around us,”
Kerry told supporters as some party elders said it was about time
to rally behind a nominee.

“I think Democrats need to unify behind John Kerry and
refocus on winning in November,” said former Clinton White
House chief of staff Leon Panetta.

Voters in the two states, like those in most of the first dozen
contests, said the ability to defeat President Bush was the top
quality they sought in a candidate — and those who said so
sided 6-to-1 with Kerry, according to exit polls.

“Anybody but Bush,” said Charles Edwards, 50, of
Falls Church, Va., who decided to vote for Kerry as he entered his
voting booth. “I’d vote for the devil.”

Bush’s poll ratings have dropped amid questions about his
use of U.S. intelligence in deciding to go to war in Iraq. As
Democrats cast their votes, the White House released pay records
and other information to answer questions — echoed by Kerry
— about whether the president fulfilled his Vietnam-era
commitment to the National Guard.

The subject didn’t come up yesterday night, though Kerry
said he and his fellow Vietnam veterans are still fighting for
their country.

“For more than three years, this administration has failed
to tell the truth about their economic record,” Kerry told
supporters.

He said it’s not up to him to decide whether his foes
should stay in the race. Still, his every strategy was designed to
dispatch his rivals with yesterday’s triumphs, victory next
week in Wisconsin or a nail-in-the-coffin showing March 2.

“What we showed today is the mainstream values that
I’ve been talking about, fairness and hope and hard work and
love of country, are more important than boundaries and
birthplace,” the Massachusetts senator told The Associated
Press.

“People want change in the country. They want to move
forward in a new direction and I think I’m articulating what
that new direction can be,” Kerry said. “It’s
crossing all lines … without regard to region and other
labels.”

With 97 percent of the votes totaled in Virginia, Kerry had 51
percent, Edwards 27 percent, Clark 9 percent, Dean 7 percent, Al
Sharpton 3 percent and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio 1 percent. In
Tennessee, with 63 percent reporting, Kerry had 42 percent, Edwards
26 percent, Clark 23 percent, Dean 4 percent and Sharpton 2
percent.

Virginia and Tennessee had 151 delegates at stake.

An AP analysis shows Kerry has piled up twice as many delegates
as his closet pursuer. Counting early results from Tuesday’s
races, Kerry now has 484 delegates to Dean’s 182, with
Edwards at 146. A total of 2,162 are needed to nominate.

Half of the voters said they made up their mind in the last
week, and many in the last three days, according to exit polls
conducted for The Associated Press and television networks by
Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.

Eight in 10 said they were angry or dissatisfied with Bush, and
Kerry finished strong among them.

“I like the fact that he’s a war hero,” said
Celia Ambrester, 69, of Knoxville, Tenn. Kerry won three Purple
hearts, one Bronze star and one Silver star in Vietnam. “We
need someone in office who’s been in war and knows the
issues.”

For Edwards and Dean, the temptation to stay in the race is
strong because the front-runner has not been tested by scandal or
miscues thus far in the primary season. Kerry’s foes also
point out that the crowded election schedule has not left much time
for voters to take a second look at the front-runner.

Some voters were already looking. Bob Casey, 68, of Memphis,
Tenn., sided with Clark after calling Kerry a liberal “from
back East.” Eugene Robinson, 32, of Richmond, Va., voted for
Clark because “he wasn’t some smarmy politician who was
ready to talk about all the laws he’s passed and all the
committees he’s been on.”

Though both Clark and Edwards have denied any interest in a vice
presidential nomination, their future viability may come into play
as they decide how long to fight Kerry.

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