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Bush Remains Top Democrats’ Primary Target

Times Staff Writers

The two major contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination largely ignored each other Saturday as they pressed their cases against Bush administration policies on the economy, stem-cell research and other domestic issues.

Both candidates ended the night in New York City, where they are scheduled to debate this morning in their final face-to-face meeting before Super Tuesday’s round of 10 primaries and caucuses.

With 1,151 delegates at stake, nearly half the number needed to win the nomination, Tuesday’s results could cement John F. Kerry’s already commanding lead or reinvigorate the long-shot effort of his Senate colleague, John Edwards.

Edwards, taking a circuitous route to New York, with stops in Georgia and Ohio, criticized the administration’s record on domestic issues, particularly the economy and job erosion.

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“People lose part of their soul when they lose their jobs,” the North Carolina senator told about 200 people, mostly African American elected officials, at Augusta’s Historic Tabernacle Baptist Church in Georgia.

Kerry, who scheduled only one public event here after flying east from Oakland, jabbed President Bush over a Congressional Budget Office prediction that, under Bush’s proposed budget, the federal deficit will extend to 2014 and be higher than earlier estimated.

Kerry also condemned the administration for replacing two scientists on a bioethics panel. There is an ongoing debate over the administration’s views on stem cell research.

Bush replaced Elizabeth Blackburn, a cell biologist at UC San Francisco and former president of the American Society for Cell Biology, and William May, a medical ethicist and retired professor at Southern Methodist University on the President’s Council on Bioethics.

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In their place, the president named Benjamin Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, and Peter Lawler, chair of the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Georgia and Diana Schaub, a political science professor at Loyola College in Maryland.

Bush created the bioethics panel in January 2001 to replace a similar group that advised President Clinton. Blackburn and May were often in the minority among the 17 members of the panel, which has taken a conservative view on biotechnology. Some of the discussion has centered on therapeutic cloning, in which cloned embryos would be created as a source of therapeutic tissues such as stem cells.

Some Christian and politically conservative groups oppose the research -- especially through stem cells created by cloning embryos in labs -- as immoral because fertilized embryos must be destroyed to harvest the cells.

Kerry, siding with stem-cell scientists, says he believes the research is critical to advancing medical knowledge and curing disease, but that he is opposed to human cloning.

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“We have diseases that can be cured, and we have a president who just today kicked two people off the bioethics commission because they happen to think we ought to be doing stem cell research and other kinds of research, and he doesn’t want that outcome,” Kerry said at a town hall meeting at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn Saturday.

“This is an administration that has less respect for science than any administration in the modern history of our country.”

Suzy DeFrancis, a spokeswoman for Bush, said that since the commissioners’ terms had expired in January, it was the president’s “prerogative to make changes.” All the council’s members’ terms expired last month.

“We decided to appoint other people with other expertise and experience,” she said.

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The Massachusetts senator also highlighted a report released Friday by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that predicts Bush’s fiscal proposals would yield $2.75 trillion in deficits over the next decade. Earlier predictions placed the deficits at $2 trillion for that period.

“This president must not understand how higher deficits hurt working people,” Kerry said in a statement. “They raise interest rates, which mean higher mortgage payments, higher car payments and higher payments on student loans. Such higher deficits will result in a weaker economy.”

On Saturday night, Kerry met privately with ministers and political leaders and hosted a town hall meeting in Brooklyn to discuss the urban ills of America. In addition, Kerry received the endorsements of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and his son, Andrew Cuomo, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But his presence here also prompted a protest Saturday. About 200 U.S. Army veterans and Vietnamese immigrants demonstrated outside Kerry’s headquarters to protest his opposition in the 1970s to the Vietnam War.

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Waving American and South Vietnamese flags and singing the U.S. national anthem, they held up signs saying “Hanoi John,” and “Kerry Betrayed Vietnam Vets.” Some carried copies of a doctored photograph showing Kerry sitting beside actress Jane Fonda; the fake photo has been widely circulated on the Internet among veterans and conservatives who oppose his candidacy.

Kerry, a decorated naval lieutenant, became a leader of the antiwar movement after returning from Vietnam.

His chief rival in the Democratic presidential race, Edwards, spent half the day in Georgia, appealing for votes in a state he hopes to win Tuesday.

In a twist for a candidate who rarely mentions his Democratic opponents’ names, Edwards offered an unusually forceful argument that he is better suited than Kerry to win Southern states -- states he believes the Democrats need to wrest the White House back from the Republicans.

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Edwards cited a recent SurveyUSA poll that showed that if the general election were held today he would beat Bush in North Carolina, where Edwards was a high-profile trial attorney and which he now represents in the Senate.

“I’m beating George Bush,” Edwards said. “And John Kerry is losing by double digits.”

Some polling experts, however, don’t put much faith in the poll because of its methodology -- automatic telephone dialed questions and responses.

Edwards invoked a still-sore subject among Democrats -- the 2000 Florida recount and the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that gave Bush the White House.

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“You don’t always win the presidency when you win the popular vote -- we saw that,” Edwards said from the pulpit at the front of the wood-and-brick church founded in the late 1800s by former African American slaves.

Key to beating Bush, he said, is winning the support of independent voters -- something exit polls show he has done in several primary states. And Georgia, he said, is prime among the states the Democrats must win.

He shrugged off the results of an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll that showed him 16 points behind Kerry in a state most analysts believe he must win Tuesday to stay in the presidential race.

In Augusta, Edwards spoke before the Georgia Assn. of Black Elected Officials, where he was slotted between rival Al Sharpton of New York and Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr.

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And in Atlanta, he was introduced by retired basketball star Charles Barkley before urging an enthusiastic crowd of about 400 to join him in pushing a domestic agenda to fight poverty, remove the influence of money in politics and heal what he sees as a pervasive racial divide.

“We have a special responsibility when it comes to issues of race and equality and civil rights,” he told a roomful of fellow Southerners from the stage of the ornately decorated Fox Theater.

“That responsibility is to lead, not follow. To show the rest of the country what we’re made of.”


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