Posting a sweeping victory in 9 out of 10 states on the biggest primary day of the year, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has claimed an effective lock on the Democratic nomination - and kicked off what is already shaping up to be a highly competitive general election.
Senator Kerry's top challenger, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, is expected to drop out of the race Wednesday after a disappointing showing in which he held Kerry to a close finish only in Georgia, and ultimately did not carry a single state. Kerry's sole defeat came from former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is no longer a candidate, but who won his home state of Vermont. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton won no states, though they are expected to continue their campaigns until the Democratic National Convention in July.
Kerry's near-total domination of the primary season has been striking.
Beginning with his surprise win in Iowa, he surged ahead and never lost ground. In part, it's a testament to the power of momentum in a front-loaded calendar, with the quick succession of contests making it difficult for challengers to make up ground.
But Kerry's glide to victory also points to a Democratic electorate that is unusually unified around the goal of beating President Bush.
While primary fights within the out party often expose deep ideological divisions - and can leave the nominee battered and bloody - this year's contest has, if anything, served as an extended rallying cry for Democrats and set the stage for a close general-election battle. Not only is the party emerging every bit as united as Republicans, but Kerry is coming out of the primary season stronger than when he went in, with recent polls showing him beating Mr. Bush in a head-to-head matchup.
"There's been a lot of polarization around the Bush presidency," says Steve Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "Democrats ... are of one mind about finding an alternative to George Bush. That is the glue that brought all this together for Kerry."
The only potential warning sign for Kerry amid the results may be that, as in past primary contests, he lost to Edwards among independents and Republicans in states where those voters were allowed to participate in the Democratic contest. And while some of those votes may have been strategic - with non-Democratic voters hoping to muddy Kerry's victory - it could also be an indication that Kerry will have little crossover appeal.
Still, the key to winning the Democratic nomination is winning Democrats - and Kerry's strength was once again evident in every segment of the party's base, from liberals to African Americans to women.
To some extent, Kerry's triumph over challengers like Edwards and Dr. Dean may show that, in this cycle at least, voters are looking above all for experience and a steady hand. In contrast to recent elections when the mantle of "political insider" often proved fatal, Kerry easily fought off challengers claiming to be outsiders.
Kerry's background as a Vietnam veteran and his foreign policy expertise persuaded Democratic voters that he could face off against Bush in an election where Bush has signaled his intention to run on national security.
"People feel that he matches up well with George Bush," says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Poll.
Ultimately, Edwards failed to distinguish himself sufficiently from Kerry. Although he tried to carve out differences on the issue of trade, stressing his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Kerry voted for, his message failed to resonate with voters. In Ohio, where the loss of manufacturing jobs has become a major political issue - and is likely to make the state a key battleground in November - Kerry won handily among voters who complained that free trade cost the state jobs.
Edwards also ran a largely positive campaign, only belatedly - and lightly - attacking Kerry in the final debate in New York.
To many, Edwards's ongoing presence in the race has been a boon to Kerry - keeping the contest going and allowing Kerry to be declared a winner over and over again.
Indeed, many observers have suggested that Edwards may have been trying to keep his options open as a vice-presidential pick - a speculation that could be reinforced by Edwards's strong praise of Kerry Tuesday night in his speech to supporters.
Putting Edwards on the ticket would allow Kerry to balance it geographically, and could further unite the party by bringing on board enthusiastic Edwards supporters. But others say Kerry may be more likely to choose a running mate who could deliver a potential swing state - such as Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico or Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. For all his appeal, Edwards is unlikely to deliver North Carolina - or much, if any, of the South.
All the talk about a Kerry-Edwards ticket could actually hurt the North Carolinian's chances, since it takes the element of surprise away from his selection. For Kerry, choosing a running mate may be one of the few ways he can make news in coming months - an indication of how the race is about to change for the Massachusetts senator, as he sets his sights squarely on Bush and the White House.
"[Kerry's] entering a period where a lot of the advantage is to the incumbent," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "From now until he picks his vice presidential candidate, the only way [Kerry] can make hard news is to give speeches and issue statements. That gets old real fast."