CHICAGO – John Kerry (search), with only phantom rivals and pushovers left in the Democratic race, easily won four Southern primaries Tuesday to bring him within striking distance of the presidential nomination.
Kerry swept Florida, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana on a night when the names of old foes remained on ballots printed when there was still a real competition. He was winning about 70 percent of the votes in Florida and Mississippi, and exit polls found him piling up sizable victories in the two other states, with the field pretty much to himself.
Campaigning for the March 16 Illinois primary, Kerry criticized the nation's new prescription drug program and argued President Bush has done little to help the elderly.
"It must be getting lonely for George Bush," Kerry said in an appearance with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. "It seems he's the last person left in America who actually believes his failed policies will ever work."
Kerry may soon get help from former rival Howard Dean (search), who was meeting with the nominee-in-waiting Wednesday to discuss a possible endorsement, sources said.
Kerry essentially locked up the contest last week after the departure of chief rival John Edwards (search). Exit polls of voters in the four Southern primaries found that Edwards, a North Carolina senator, would be a popular choice in the region for Kerry's running mate. More than half the people surveyed said they'd like to see him on the ticket.
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and the Rev. Al Sharpton, both trailing Kerry distantly, were still in the race, but Sharpton didn't make it on the Louisiana ballot.
With little at stake and no suspense Tuesday, voters who turned out tended to be older than participants in earlier primaries, more motivated than the norm, and had the free time to come out.
The economy was their top issue and about four in 10 said their own financial situation was worse than four years ago. As in earlier primaries, many were angry at Bush, especially in Florida, where his brother, Jeb, is governor, and in Texas, his home state, according to the exit polls conducted for The Associated Press.
Almost half of the Democratic voters said they feel Kerry shares their values a lot; four in 10 said he shares those values somewhat, according to the surveys.
Kerry, a fourth-term Massachusetts senator, criticized the prescription drug legislation signed by Bush last fall that includes the most far-reaching changes in Medicare since the creation of the giant health care program for seniors in 1965.
Beginning in 2006, the law will give beneficiaries a prescription drug benefit for the first time, with subsidies for low-income seniors to help offset premiums and other costs. The law also provides subsidies for insurance companies to offer private health care coverage to seniors as an alternative to the government-designed benefit they now receive.
Kerry immediately drew fire from House Speaker Dennis Hastert who faulted the Democrat for scaring "our greatest generation with misinformation about the voluntary and affordable" law that the Illinois Republican helped write.
Hastert also said Kerry missed 36 of 38 votes, including final passage, on Medicare legislation.
Illinois is among the states seeking to import cheaper drugs from Canada, and Kerry blamed Bush.
"He stubbornly insists on tax cuts as he steadily loses jobs in this country," the Democrat said. "He stubbornly refuses to allow the importation of drugs from Canada while steadily the prices are going up."
At stake Tuesday in the four states were 465 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in July. Based on early returns, an Associated Press analysis showed the senator with 1,631 but, according to how the party allocates delegates, Kerry wasn't expected to reach the magic number of 2,162 until later this month.
In American Samoa, Kerry easily won with 83 percent of the vote to 17 percent for Kucinich of Ohio. The U.S. territory located about 2,300 miles south of Hawaii offered three delegates.
Kerry planned to travel to Washington for meetings later this week with former rivals Dean and Edwards, brimming with confidence that they would be available to assist in his campaign.
Officials familiar with the discussions, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Dean was prepared to endorse Kerry, campaign on Kerry's behalf and ask his contributors to donate to the presumptive nominee. But that was contingent on the outcome of the meeting, and Kerry's willingness to help court the faction of Dean's supporters still skeptical of his commitment to reform, the officials said.
If the meeting goes well, as expected, aides for Dean and Kerry would spend a week or so orchestrating an endorsement, the officials said.
"Dean has been very clear he wants to be part of the team, he wants to help win," Kerry said. "John Edwards has been very clear he wants to be part of the team."