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Inside Politics

Bush vs. Kerry war begins in earnest

Edwards withdraws, endorses 'my friend John Kerry'

John Kerry left Washington Wednesday morning for Florida, and President Bush left for California.
John Kerry left Washington Wednesday morning for Florida, and President Bush left for California.

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Watch CNN-USA now: Soledad O'Brien, Bill Hemmer and Jack Cafferty lead the "American Morning" team's coverage of President Bush's campaign efforts in the West and John Kerry's stumping ahead of Tuesday's primaries in Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.
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CNN's David Ensor on John Kerry and the battle with Bush on security issues.
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CNN's Bill Schneider on exit polls and what Democrats see in John Kerry.
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Senator John Edwards officially officially drops out of the race for the U.S. presidency.
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America Votes 2004
John F. Kerry
Democratic candidates
Presidential primaries

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- His virtual knockout success on Super Tuesday behind him, and the men who were once his rivals now among his most prominent supporters, Sen. John Kerry put all his focus Wednesday on the head-to-head matchup against President Bush for the White House.

"We're going to reach out to America on basic common sense, and we're going to have a conversation about how we really make this nation of ours stronger and safer and how we keep the promise to the American people,"Kerry told a crowd Wednesday at a town hall meeting in Orlando, Florida -- a key battleground state in the presidential race.

It was his first campaign stop after sweeping nine out of 10 states Tuesday, virtually locking up the Democratic nomination.

"When the returns came in, and I stood up there last night, I knew I was coming to Orlando, my first instinct was to say to everybody, 'Guess where I'm going tomorrow. I'm going to Disney World,' " he joked to laughter and applause. "But I resisted the temptation."

Being the presumptive nominee means it's time to find a running mate. In a written statement, the Kerry campaign announced that the search will be headed by Jim Johnson, a Washington businessman and civic leader.

"Kerry's swift action in beginning this process to select a running mate indicates what type of president the nation can expect -- decisive, focused and ready to lead," Johnson said in the statement. "I very much look forward to being part of the team that will bring change to America."

Sen. John Edwards, who was fighting Kerry for the nomination, praised "my friend John Kerry whom I know very well" during a speech in his home state of North Carolina Wednesday.

The senator said Kerry was someone "who has fought for and will continue to fight for the things that all of us believe in, more jobs, better health care, cleaner air, cleaner water, a safer world."

"He showed the strength, the resilience, the courage he has shown his entire life when he fought for us and for our country in Vietnam -- he's done it all throughout this campaign," Edwards told his cheering supporters.

"The truth of the matter is John Kerry has what it matters right here," Edwards said pointing to his chest, "to be president of the United States. And I, for one, intend to do everything in my power to make him the next president of the United States. And I ask you to join me in this cause.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who stopped campaigning two weeks ago, nonetheless won the primary in his home state, thereby prohibiting a Kerry Super Tuesday sweep. Dean has long said he would help the Democratic nominee.

For Kerry, being relieved of a primary battle came just in time. The re-election campaign for Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will unleash $4.5 million in advertising in key battleground states Thursday, citing the president's "leadership in times of change." That sum is a small part of a campaign war chest that totals more than $140 million.

The Kerry campaign has a fraction of that amount. (Full story)

"George Bush has about $200 million and he's going to start advertising tomorrow," Kerry said at the town hall meeting in Orlando. "We need to be able to answer him."

Calling on Democrats across the country to pledge as much as they can, he said, "We can fight back and reclaim our democracy in the United States of America. So let's go make it happen."

Kerry was joined in Orlando by Democratic Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, whom he called "living testimony to what happens in Florida when you count all the votes" -- a reference to the dispute over certain votes not being counted in 2000.

"I'll be back here a lot," he told the crowd.

In a sign of the Democratic plan to come together behind Kerry in hopes of unseating Bush, Graham, a former presidential hopeful himself, told reporters, "I will do anything within limits -- I will not sacrifice one of my grandchildren, for example -- to elect John Kerry." (Analysis: CNN's Carlos Watson on the road ahead)

White House officials told CNN that Bush has begun reviewing transcripts of Kerry's interviews and his responses in Democratic debates to find weak points. And Republican representatives wasted no time Wednesday before launching attacks against Kerry.

"He's not even trying to be fiscally responsible," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

"The Kerry plan is simple: Add more money to our national deficit, spend more money here in Washington, raise taxes on job creation," said Speaker Dennis Hastert at news briefing after a meeting of the House Republican Conference on Capitol Hill. (Full story)

Both the Bush and Kerry campaigns have their sights set on states that decided the 2000 election by narrow margins -- including Florida, which had both sides claiming victory for weeks on end.

Outlining the contest

Kerry's near sweep effectively ended the campaign of his closest rival, Edwards. (Super Tuesday results)

"Before us lie long months of effort and of challenge, and we understand that," Kerry told supporters at a victory celebration Tuesday night.

"We have no illusions about the Republican attack machine and what our opponents have done in the past, and what they may try to do in the future. But I know that together, we are equal to this task." (Transcript of comments, key points of speech)

"I am a fighter," declared the decorated Vietnam veteran. "For more than 30 years, I have been on the battle lines, on the front lines, of the struggle for fairness and for mainstream American values and in 2004, I pledge we will tell the truth about what has happened in our country, and we will fight to give America back its future and its hope."

Condemning Bush as a president who has looked out for the wealthy and privileged, alienated allies abroad and divided Americans, Kerry said "change is coming to America."

Losing no time, various Bush surrogates were on the airwaves, blasting Kerry as big on tax hikes and weak on defense.

Bush called Kerry Tuesday evening, congratulating him on "decisive victories" and saying he looks forward to a "spirited debate," a Bush campaign spokesman said.

New York civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio remain in the race, although they have collected few delegates. ('s interactive Primary Explainer) (Audio Slide Show: A changed landscape)

Sharpton said late Tuesday that he would decide within a week whether to remain in the race. ('s interactive Election Calendar)

"We're not in this just for the nomination. We're in it to make sure that people who have been unheard are heard, and issues that have been unaddressed are addressed," Sharpton told CNN. (Full story)

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