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ARKIB : 03/03/2004

Kerry looks to seal nomination with ``Super Tuesday'' sweep

NEW YORK March 2 - Democratic voters in 10 states went to the polls in a ``Super Tuesday'' slate of contests, with an increasingly confident Senator John Kerry looking for a clean sweep to clinch the presidential nomination.

Polls showed Kerry leading his only serious rival, John Edwards, across the board in Tuesday's potentially decisive round of ballots for the right to challenge Republican President George W. Bush.

A last-gasp change of tactics by Edwards - which saw him go on the offensive against the front-running Massachusetts lawmaker - made little dent in the triumphalist air of the Kerry camp, which was already clearly looking beyond to the November 2 presidential election.

``I come here tonight to mark the beginning of the end of the Bush presidency,'' Kerry told a cheering crowd at his final rally in Atlanta as he pressed his attacks on the incumbent.

Speaking after a series of blasts killed scores of people in Baghdad and Karbala, Kerry blamed the continuing violence in Iraq on ``the failure of his (Bush's) unilateral, ideological policy.''

``Europe and the Arab nations all have a fundamental interest in not having a failed Iraq. But George Bush has failed completely to bring them to the table in a serious way,'' Kerry said in an interview with CNN.

Asked about the nations that are already on the ground in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein 11 months ago, Kerry said, ``Well, the fact is that those countries are really window dressing to the greatest degree.''

Polls show Bush increasingly vulnerable and his popularity sagging. But the Republicans, armed with a war chest of more than 100 million dollars, have only begun to crank up their re-election machine.

``It's time now to turn to a two-man general election contest,'' acknowledged Bush spokesman Terry Holt.

``We're prepared for that general election phase to begin,'' Holt said, adding that Republicans would build ``the most expansive grassroots organisation ever fielded in a national campaign for president.''

Two days after ``Super Tuesday,'' the Bush campaign plans to unroll a two-month media assault on Kerry - running ads on cable television and targeting in particular 17 states where the November race could be close.

A pugnacious Kerry said he was ready for the battle.

``We're going to prove to them, all across our nation, that American people want something better ... and that (smear) tactics don't work,'' he said, while pillorying the president's record on jobs, health care and foreign policy.

``I've never seen a playing field so tilted against the average American worker as it is today,'' he said. ``The only person in the United States who deserves to be laid off is George Bush.''

A total of 1,151 nominating delegates, more than half the 2,162 needed to secure the nod, were up for grabs Tuesday in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Kerry currently has 727 delegates to Edwards's 212, and even if Tuesday's races cannot put him mathematically over the top, a run of the table would virtually seal the nomination well ahead of the party's July convention in Boston.

Kerry's entourage has already taken on a more presidential air, with an upgraded campaign plane capable of accommodating an expanding travelling press corps, as well as a Secret Service detail dispatched a week ago.

Edwards, 50, spent Monday campaigning in Ohio and Georgia, two states where he had hoped his crusade against US job losses would resonate. But even here, polls showed Kerry with healthy, double-digit margins.

Yet despite growing pressure from senior Democratic leaders to rally behind a single candidate, Edwards insists he will stay in the race even if he loses everywhere on Tuesday.

``I am so ready for this fight,'' Edwards told a rally in Toledo. ``If you give me a shot at George Bush, I'll give you back the White House!''

After months of polite sparring, Edwards recently sharpened his tone against the 60-year-old Kerry, painting him as a tired Washington insider with flawed budgetary proposals and support for trade accords that cost US jobs.

Kerry, 60, hit back at the relatively inexperienced first-term senator, saying the country needed a president with ``the proven ability to be able to stand up and take on tough fights.''

The bickering came amid speculation over a November Kerry-Edwards ticket that many Democratic strategists believe has the best chance of toppling Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

But Kerry denied published reports Tuesday that the two men were distant, telling CNN: ``I'd describe us as friends, good friends. ... I have great respect and affection for he and his family.'' - AFP

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