WASHINGTON – John Kerry's (search) capture of the Democratic presidential nomination is the realization of a dream that nearly slipped away.
The Massachusetts senator entered the race as an insider favorite, a celebrated combat veteran seeking to the lead the country in a time of war, only to see his stock plummet as Howard Dean's Internet-fueled campaign gained strength.
But Kerry doggedly climbed back to the top with a surprise victory in Iowa that gave him powerful momentum to take the New Hampshire primary and nearly every state that followed. On Tuesday he locked up the nomination by winning nine of 10 state contests, from New York to California, and driving his last major Democratic opponent, John Edwards (search), out of the race.
Kerry's advisers said the candidate only grew more determined earlier this year when so many people were betting against him. When Dean was on the cover of Time and Newsweek and was sweeping up endorsements from powerful Democratic unions and former Democratic nominee Al Gore, Kerry increased his resolve.
"He said, `If I'm going to be the only one to believe in me, I've just got to go out and win on my own and prove it,'" said David Wade, the press secretary who has traveled with Kerry during the campaign.
With a reputation for aloofness and a top-heavy campaign staff riven with differences over strategy, Kerry also had to defend his Senate vote in favor of the war in Iraq at a time when it appeared party activists preferred a critic of the conflict.
As early polls showed Dean rising at Kerry's expense, the Massachusetts senator made tough adjustments to his campaign.
"He knew that he was way, way down," Wade said. "He was realistic."
He fired Jim Jordan, the manager who had assembled his top-notch campaign team, and brought in Mary Beth Cahill, a former chief of staff to Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy. Together, they shifted Kerry's focus to Iowa, seeing it as his best hope to bring his campaign back to life.
Kerry made a point of staying late after his town hall meetings in Iowa, vowing to answer every voter's question while his staff made a show of trying to cut him off. He would say that he wouldn't leave the room until he persuaded everyone in it to caucus for him.
With Iowa front-runners Dean and Dick Gephardt targeting each other, Kerry rose to become the surprise victor of the first state and 26 of the next 29 as well as Democratic voters said their top priority was a candidate who could defeat a wartime president. One by one, all of Kerry's other major rivals dropped out in the face of his domination.
As his path to the nomination became clear Tuesday night, he took a call from the man who will be his rival for the next eight months, President Bush.
In an interview, the senator said he told the president, "I hope we can have a great debate about the future of our country and the direction our nation needs to go and the choices that are critical to the people."
Immediately ahead lies the challenge of pivoting from a primary campaign to the general election. That involves issues as diverse as raising money quickly to try to neutralize Bush's advantage, to selecting a running mate.
Kerry marked his victory by ordering aides to set up a process for reviewing potential vice presidential candidates, according to senior advisers. They said it was possible Kerry would choose a running mate well before the Democratic nominating convention in July.
An early selection would generate excitement among Democrats in the months ahead, perhaps giving Kerry media attention at a time Bush is likely to be outspending him heavily on television advertising.
"Before us ... lie long months of effort and of challenge," Kerry told supporters Tuesday night. "And we understand that we have no illusion about the Republican attack machine and what our opponents have done in the past and what they may try to do in the future."
Kerry long has tried to avoid comparisons with Michael Dukakis (search), the former Massachusetts governor whom many Democrats faulted for not fighting harder when attacked in the 1988 presidential campaign.
"I am a fighter and for more than 30 years I've been on the battle lines, on the front lines of the struggle for fairness and for mainstream American values," he said.
Kerry said he would campaign to repeal Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, raise the minimum wage, protect the environment and make health care more widely available.
In an oft-repeated challenge to the president, he said if the commander in chief wants to make the election a referendum on national security, "Bring it on."