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Kerry sweeps 4 Southern states

Bush clinches GOP nomination

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America Votes 2004
George W. Bush
John F. Kerry

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts easily swept four Southern primaries Tuesday, putting the presumptive Democratic nominee tantalizingly close to the number of delegates he needs to clinch his party's presidential nomination.

Kerry -- whose last major rival, Sen. John Edwards, dropped out last week -- won the Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas contests. (Primary results)

On the other side of the ballot, President Bush's victories in those four states gave him enough delegates to officially win the Republican nomination for a second term.

"Republicans are excited about the campaign ahead and know how serious and important this election is," said Terry Holt, a Bush campaign spokesman. "We're gratified by the support we're receiving and look forward to a debate on the biggest issues facing this country -- fixing the economy and winning the war on terror."

The 465 delegates at stake Tuesday put Kerry closer to the magic number he needs to officially secure the nomination -- 2,162 -- though not enough delegates were at stake Tuesday for him to clinch it outright. (Delegate Scoreboard)

Beginning his day in Florida, Kerry chatted with voters at a sandwich shop in Tampa and walked across the street to greet children at a day-care center, before leaving the Sunshine State for snowy Illinois.

There, in a fresh attack, Kerry took issue with the Bush campaign's theme that the president has provided steady leadership in times of change.

"I think it's been what I'd call stubborn leadership, because he stubbornly insists on tax cuts as he steadily loses jobs in this country," Kerry told a rally in Evanston. "I think his stubborn leadership has steadily led America in the wrong direction."

In the 2000 presidential election, Bush carried Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas as he swept the South. But the final official margin in Florida was just 537 votes, and Kerry is expected to heavily target the state this fall.

After a blitz Monday through Texas, Bush was back in Washington and off the campaign trail Tuesday. But he used a business awards ceremony to argue that the economy is improving under his stewardship.

"Inflation is low, interest rates are low, manufacturing is up," Bush told the audience at the Malcolm Baldridge Quality Awards. "Home ownership is at an all-time high. Stock prices are up. ... The unemployment rate today is lower than the average rate in the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s.

"Thanks to our productive workers and the entrepreneurial spirit of this country, the fastest-growing major industrialized economy in the world is the United States of America."

Without mentioning names, Bush also took issue with calls during the Democratic campaign for restrictions on free trade in order to protect American jobs from going overseas.

"There are economic isolationists in our country who believe we should separate ourselves from the rest of the world by raising up barriers and closing off markets," Bush said. "They're wrong. If we are to continue growing this economy and creating new jobs, America must remain confident and strong about our ability to trade in the world."

Bush will defend his economic policy again Wednesday in a speech he will deliver in Cleveland after touring a high-technology firm.

As the campaign heats up, the Bush administration has been hitting back against some recent charges by Kerry, with Secretary of State Colin Powell making a rare foray into the political fray.

Powell took issue with Kerry's comments in Sunday's New York Times that Powell has been muzzled by hawks in the Bush administration and "never permitted to be fully a secretary of state in the way that I envision the secretary of state."

Powell, in an interview broadcast Tuesday by National Public Radio, called Kerry's comments "absolute nonsense."

"Senator Kerry really would be well served by not throwing such charges around in a political campaign," Powell said. "I work very closely with the president."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan also responded to Kerry's repeated criticism of Bush for scheduling just one hour for an interview with the chairman and vice chairman of an independent commission investigating the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

McClellan said the administration has provided "unprecedented cooperation" with the panel, and he said Bush would "answer all the questions" raised by the commission's leaders when they interview the president. (Full story)

Referring to Kerry, McClellan said, "I don't think he's someone who lets facts get in the way of his campaign."

Of the remaining Democratic candidates, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio was expected to be released soon from a Cleveland hospital after being treated for a stomach ailment apparently brought on by food poisoning, his campaign said.

The Rev. Al Sharpton had scheduled a news conference for Tuesday, but it was canceled. A spokeswoman said Monday that Sharpton had hired the William Morris agency to represent him and was considering hosting a cable news or radio program or a reality TV program.

Kerry said he has talked with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean several times recently and expects to meet with him later this week in Washington.

He also said he and Edwards "became good friends" during the primary race -- looking to cast off some lingering questions as to whether the heated competition in the days before Edwards dropped out soured their rapport.

Taking a page out of Dean's grass-roots fund-raising system, Kerry said he hopes 2 million Americans will give his campaign $100 each to help him approach Bush's unprecedented war chest.

CNN's Robert Yoon and John Zarrella contributed to this report.

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