John Kerry locked up the Democratic presidential nomination Saturday, reaching the magic number of delegates needed to become President Bush's chief rival in the general election, according to an Associated Press tally.
On Saturday, Kerry called for monthly debates with Bush to elevate the tenor of a campaign that's opened with a relentlessly negative tone.
"Surely, if the attack ads can start now, at least we can agree to start a real discussion about America's future," said Kerry, speaking to about 500 people packed into a school gymnasium in Quincy, Ill.
Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign dismissed the debate suggestion, arguing that Kerry is largely responsible for the campaign's tenor.
"After calling Republicans crooks and liars, running 17 negative ads over 15,000 times and spending $6.3 million attacking the president, John Kerry is calling for a civil debate on the issues," said Schmidt. "John Kerry should finish the debate with himself."
The four-term Massachusetts senator reached the 2,162 delegate mark Saturday afternoon, the AP count found, just as Democrats in Kansas headed to party caucuses.
Kerry subsequently added to his tally with another easy victory in Kansas, winning 72 percent of the vote there and pushing his delegate total to 2,194.
Amassing the required number of delegates was a mere formality after Kerry's last main Democratic opponent, John Edwards, dropped out of the race following a disastrous showing on March 2, when 10 states held "Super Tuesday" contests.
"We're certainly pleased to have as many delegates that we do, but John Kerry will continue to fight for as many votes as possible from now up until we arrive in Boston for the (Democratic) convention," campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said.
Kerry hit the magic number Saturday thanks to support from "superdelegates" — people who get a vote at the convention in July by virtue of their influence within the party.
He had 2,000 delegates following his commanding wins in primaries in four Southern states last week. He picked up the last 162 needed through superdelegate endorsements and pledges to vote for him at the convention.
Superdelegates don't have to abide by the results of the primary or caucus in their state, and can change their mind on who to support at any time.
There will be a total of 4,322 delegates at the party convention, with nomination requiring the votes of a simple majority of at least 2,162, through any combination of pledged delegates gained in presidential contests, and superdelegates.
The AP count is based on state and party rules, analysis of election results, and interviews with superdelegates. Support was counted only if the superdelegate could be contacted, either personally or through a representative.