WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Kerry solidified his standing as the man to beat for the Democratic presidential nomination in convincing cross-country fashion Tuesday night, sweeping primaries in the East, Midwest and Southwest.
Sen. John Edwards' win in South Carolina kept him in the Democratic presidential race.
So too with retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who eked out a win in Oklahoma, the evening's closest contest.
The night was far less kind to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who quit the race after yet another weak showing. So, too, to Howard Dean, the winless one-time front-runner who insisted he would fight on.
"It's a big day for John Kerry. He certainly appears to be well on his way to the nomination," said Steve Murphy, who was campaign manager for Rep. Dick Gephardt, an early casualty in the race.
"The only question is who is going to be the last man standing" against Kerry, he said.
That could be Edwards. Or Clark.
"It's Kerry's race to lose right now," said Merle Black, a professor of politics at Emory University in Georgia. "He comes out way ahead in the delegates and there appears to be no one else on the scene who appears capable of stopping him."
Kerry won in Missouri, Arizona, North Dakota, New Mexico and Delaware, and said he, not Edwards, was running a nationwide race.
Officially, the Kerry campaign had said the Massachusetts senator's goal for the night was to gain more of the 269 delegates at stake than any of his rivals.
Still, in the week since his double-digit victory in the New Hampshire primary, the Massachusetts senator campaigned for a seven-state sweep that could turn the race for the nomination into a rout.
Even before the night's results were known, he was looking ahead, lining up an endorsement from the 1.2 million-member American Federation of Teachers and anticipating more success in Saturday caucuses in Michigan and Washington.
The evening's contests exposed the contenders to a far more diverse electorate than the overwhelmingly white electorate in the Iowa caucuses two weeks ago or in last week's New Hampshire primary.
Nearly half the voters in South Carolina were black and nearly one in six who cast ballots in Arizona's primary were Hispanics, according to polling place interviews. Additionally, Missouri is a classic general-election battleground state.
South Carolina was also the first southern state to vote, and Edwards and Kerry both said they could compete against Bush in the region where he figures to run strongest.
Black said that was unlikely. "Kerry would be very competitive in Florida, and if Edwards were on the ticket maybe that would put North Carolina in play," he said. For other states to become competitive, he said, Bush's popularity would have to suffer.
Voters in Democratic presidential contests scattered around the country said they thought the economy and jobs were the top issues in the campaign and they want a strong-willed candidate who can beat Bush, exit polls found.
Voters in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, Oklahoma and South Carolina all cited the economy and jobs as top concerns, according to a voter survey conducted for The Associated Press by the National Election Pool.
In South Carolina, Edwards beat Kerry by a 2-to-1 margin among South Carolina voters who said the economy was a top concern and among white voters. They did equally well among black voters.