WASHINGTON – Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, making the Democratic presidential nomination his own, promised cheering supporters Tuesday night, “We will win this election and we will build one America of freedom and fairness for all.”

“Change is coming to America,” vowed the four-term senator, who heads into an eight-month general election campaign leading President Bush in the nationwide polls.

Eager to turn his attention to the general election, Kerry marked his victory by ordering aides to set up a process for reviewing potential vice presidential running mates, according to senior advisers. They said it was possible Kerry would choose a nominee 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.

Kerry sealed the nomination by winning eight of nine primaries from coast to coast as well as the Minnesota caucuses. His only loss of the night was in Vermont, where campaign dropout Howard Dean prevailed.

But the path to the nomination was anything but smooth for the man who entered the race as a front-runner.

With a reputation for aloofness and a top-heavy campaign staff riven with differences over strategy, Kerry also had to defend his Senate vote for the war in Iraq at a time when it appeared party activists preferred a critic of the conflict.

His candidacy appeared doomed only a few days before the kickoff Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19. But Kerry fashioned a comeback for the ages to defeat his rivals in that critical first test, then rode a powerful wave of momentum to triumphs in the New Hampshire primary and nearly every state that followed.

One by one, rivals Dick Gephardt, Joseph Lieberman, Wesley Clark and Howard Dean fell by the wayside. On Tuesday, so, too, Edwards.

The North Carolina senator called Kerry early in the evening, signaling an end to his challenge. Kerry’s spokesman, David Wade, said that in the talk, Edwards implied that he would drop out and added he wanted to sit down with Kerry to talk about unifying the party.

Wade said they discussed how they “rode out the tough times” and the contributions and sacrifices their wives have made throughout the campaign.

Moments later, speaking in public, Kerry praised Edwards, saying he offers “great promise for leadership for the years to come.” In television interviews, Kerry declined to discuss potential running mates, but other Democrats have frequently said Edwards had earned consideration for a spot on the ticket.

Kerry received a call from Bush, as well.

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.

“Before us … lie long months of effort and of challenge,” Kerry told supporters. “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.”

In remarks to supporters, Kerry said he would campaign to repeal Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, raise the minimum wage, protect the environment and to make health care more widely available.

In a dare to the president, oft-repeated in campaign stops, he said if the commander in chief wants to make the election a referendum on national security, “Bring it on.”

Kerry has long tried to avoid comparisons with Michael Dukakis, 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.

Plunging into one controversial issue, Kerry criticized Bush for proposing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

“He has no right to misuse the most precious document in our history in an effort to divide this nation and distract us from our goals,” he said.

Kerry celebrated his triumph with his family by his side, and he chose Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, his fellow Massachusetts senator and the most prominent liberal in the land, to introduce him to his supporters.

AP-ES-03-02-04 2318EST

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