Time to end Democratic contest?

John Kerry’s growing string of wins is persuading party leaders to look for ways to bring the Democratic presidential primary season to a quick close.

John Kerry’s growing string of wins is persuading party leaders to look for ways to bring the Democratic presidential primary season to a quick close.

“I think it is obvious from the results of these primaries that the writing is on the wall,” said Leon Panetta, who served 16 years in Congress before his tenure as budget director and chief of staff in the Clinton White House.

“At some point, perhaps sooner rather than later, I think Democrats need to unify behind John Kerry and refocus on winning in November,” said Panetta, who is not affiliated with any candidate.

The race did narrow by one as retired General Wesley Clark of Arkansas abandoned his quest for the presidency after disappointing third-place finishes in both Virginia and Tennessee.

He was to travel from Memphis, Tennessee, to Little Rock today to announce his withdrawal, a senior adviser said.

The remaining southerner in the race, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, was expected to come under increasing pressure to bow out as well.

But Edwards, who finished second in both Virginia and Tennessee, told supporters in Milwaukee he would press on through next Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary, and perhaps longer.

Democratic party officials devised this year’s compressed primary schedule to avoid a protracted, money-draining nomination fight. With Kerry’s surge, Democratic leaders said the process was working pretty much as intended.

But they also hope the field narrows significantly so the real contest – the one against President George Bush – can begin.

“My hope is that the process begins right after tonight,” said New Mexico’s Democratic governor, Bill Richardson.

Richardson said the primary season so far “has been a blessing” for Democrats, raising Americans’ interest in the Democratic contests and allowing the candidates unobstructed – and until recently unanswered – shots at Bush.

But enough is enough, many Democratic activists are suggesting.

Kerry vowed to campaign on and declined to suggest that expanding his win record to 12 of 14 contests was a sign to his remaining rivals to drop out.

“That’s not for me to determine at all,” he said. “I’m on to Wisconsin, and I think the campaign moves forward and I’m going to continue to fight for every vote.”

A prolonged nomination fight could pose problems for the party in positioning itself to begin battling Bush, who has raised close to $150m (€118.5m) to spend before the Republican convention in September and is headed toward a total of $200m (€157.9m)

Kerry's triumphs in Virginia and Tennessee made him all but unstoppable in his march toward the Democratic nomination.

“Americans are voting for change – East and West, North and now in the South,” Kerry declared to the roar of supporters.

The fourth-term Massachusetts senator pocketed half the vote in Virginia - with Edwards of North Carolina a poor second and Clark of Arkansas a far-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 February 17 primary.

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 with confidence, Kerry planned to take Wednesday and Thursday 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.

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

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

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