By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Ohio voters Tuesday gave John Kerry powerful support to challenge President Bush in November.
Early Ohio returns gave the Massachusetts senator a big lead over North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in the primary election, with Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich trailing a distant third. Kerry led Edwards 52 percent to 35 percent. Kucinich had 8 percent, with 89 percent of precincts reporting.
Kerry's Super Tuesday victories helped erase any question he is the Democratic Party's candidate. He had been looking over his shoulder at Edwards since a close Wisconsin primary two weeks ago.
"It looks like the Democrats have their nominee," said Kerry spokeswoman Kathy Roeder. "We had a big win in Ohio."
Edwards had hoped for an upset win or another strong second place finish to keep his campaign alive. He is expected to drop out of the race today.
Both candidates had invested a lot of time in Ohio. Most recently, on Monday, Edwards toured the Democrat strongholds of Cleveland, Toledo and Dayton. Kerry stopped in Columbus.
Kerry dominated in all parts of the state, with big leads in Hamilton, Cuyahoga and Franklin counties.
In Cincinnati, voter Craig Bida, 37, said Kerry was the best choice he could make.
"I think he's got the maturity and experience to succeed in the role," Bida said of Kerry. "He's definitely the most qualified candidate."
Eric Rademacher, director of public polling for the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll, said Edwards wasn't able to overcome the support Kerry had already built up in Ohio in the weeks before the two actively campaigned here.
"(Kerry) won decisively in northeast Ohio and Cuyahoga County," Rademacher said. "That's the place where Edwards desperately needed to perform well if he was going to win this state."
While the presidential spotlight will shift now to other state primaries and the two parties' nominating conventions, it won't stay away from Ohio for long.
It's hard to find a pundit who hasn't picked Ohio as a key electoral battleground. Several believe Ohio could be the deciding state in a very close race.
A Jan. 6 Gallup poll shows Ohio voters are almost exactly split between those who lean Democratic (44.5 percent) and those who lean Republican (45.4 percent). And there's one more jewel: No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio.
"Ohio's going to be absolutely critical," said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
Green said Ohio's high job losses and Bush's relatively narrow win over Al Gore here in 2000 puts this state up for grabs.
"Both parties may as well rent out a hotel in Ohio because they are going to be spending so much time here," he said.
Some observers believe Al Gore was wrong to pull the plug on his Ohio campaign in October 2000. Bob Bennett, the state Republican Party chairman, said he now expects Democrats to pitch an unrelenting fight right up through Election Day.
"There's no question their mantra is, 'Don't leave Ohio,' " Bennett said.
Ohio's Democratic party chairman, Denny White, said the president will have a tougher time in Ohio in 2004 because many of the 240,000 jobs lost here can be linked to his free trade pacts with other countries.
"He's been a great president for Third-World-country workers, but they can't vote in American elections," White said.
Bennett and Joanne Davidson, Bush's regional campaign chairperson, said the president would emphasize his tax cuts and his leadership in the war on terrorism.
"With the tax cuts, the economy is coming back," Bennett said. "The jobs are starting to increase."
"We've said from the beginning this would be a very close election in Ohio," Davidson added.
Green said Democrats must get strong turnout from labor and African-American voters. He said Republicans have to inspire Bush supporters who don't vote.
And, he said, Democrats have to stay in Ohio through November.
"The lesson for Democrats is to contest Ohio right down to the wire," Green said. "I don't know which side I'd give the edge to right now."
Enquirer reporter Maggie Downs and Gannett News Service reporter Jim Siegel contributed to this report.
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