WASHINGTON - Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry rolled to dominating wins in Virginia and Tennessee on Tuesday, scoring a Southern sweep that knocked rival Wesley Clark out of the race and put the nomination within reach.
Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, easily brushed aside two Southerners, Clark of Arkansas and John Edwards of North Carolina, to notch his first wins in the South and make the case that he is a national candidate who can unify Democrats and challenge President Bush in every region.
"Americans are voting for change -- East, West, North and now in the South," Kerry said at a victory rally in Fairfax, Virginia. "We will fight for every vote, and we will carry our cause all across this land."
The sweep gave Kerry 12 wins in the first 14 Democratic nominating contests and finished off Clark, the former NATO commander and retired general who decided to end his campaign after two poor third-place finishes on Tuesday.
It also set up a crucial showdown next Tuesday in Wisconsin, where Kerry's remaining rivals need a win to prove their viability.
Clark and Edwards, a freshman senator, focused on Virginia and Tennessee all week in an effort to score strong enough showings to propel them on to Wisconsin.
But Kerry, whose campaign was considered dead barely a month ago until he charged to a win in Iowa, earned more than 50 percent of the vote in Virginia. Edwards ran a distant second and Clark a poor third.
In Tennessee, Kerry scored more than 40 percent of the vote, with Edwards 15 percentage points behind and Clark in third place.
Edwards flew to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to focus on the next test after lowering expectations all week by saying he would be happy with second-place finishes.
He wants to be the last challenger to Kerry still standing after Wisconsin, when the bulk of the delegates to July's nominating convention will still be up for grabs.
"We're going to have a campaign and an election -- not a coronation," Edwards told supporters. He told CNN later that "this race is going to go on for many weeks to come."
Clark also had promised to push on to Wisconsin no matter what happened on Tuesday, but after consultations with advisers he pulled the plug. He planned to return to his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, to formally withdraw on Wednesday, but aides said he will remain active campaigning for the nominee.
"We'll leave Tennessee even more full of hope and even more committed to building a better America than when we began this journey five months ago," Clark told supporters in Memphis, Tennessee, less than an hour before pulling out.
His withdrawal is a boost for Edwards, who had seen Clark siphon off some of his support in states like Oklahoma and on Tuesday in Virginia and Tennessee.
DEAN LOOKS TO WISCONSIN
Howard Dean, the one-time front-runner and former governor of Vermont, looked past the two Southern states to concentrate on Wisconsin, where he had promised to make a possible last stand against Kerry. On Monday, he said he would stay in the race past Wisconsin, win or lose.
"The election next Tuesday is about whether you want to stand up for a progressive America again," Dean, who finished fourth in both Virginia and Tennessee, said at a Milwaukee rally. "We are going to win Wisconsin."
Kerry's only two losses on his drive to the nomination were to Edwards and Clark last week in South Carolina and Oklahoma, respectively. He has started looking ahead on the campaign trail to the fight with Bush.
He ignores his rivals at nearly every stop and concentrates his attacks on the president's economic leadership, his ties to special interests and his shifting justification for going to war in Iraq.
Kerry kept the heat on Bush in his victory speech on Tuesday, attacking his economic policies and his record on civil rights, civil liberties and national defense.
"George Bush, who speaks of strength, has made America weaker -- weaker economically, weaker in our health care, weaker in education," Kerry said.
Network exit polls showed Democratic voters were angry with Bush and believed Kerry offered the best chance for a Democrat to unseat him in November.
Kerry's opponents still hope something will derail his nonstop momentum and give them an opening, although Edwards has not shown much interest in attacking him on the campaign trail.
Even after the Wisconsin primary, which could amount to a final showdown with Kerry, about 75 percent of the 4,322 delegates will remain to be chosen.
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