If Sen. John F. Kerry needed any more confirmation that he was running ahead of his competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination, he got it Friday when two rivals lashed him for previous comments about affirmative action and for his legislative record in the Senate.
In 1992, Kerry was quoted as saying that affirmative action was “inherently limited and divisive, and fosters a culture of dependency.”
When moderator Tom Brokaw asked about the statement at an MSNBC debate Thursday, Kerry denied wanting to end the practice. He said his statements in the 1990s dealt with his examination of problems with affirmative action and his desire to improve it.
Kerry aligned himself with President Clinton in the “mend it don’t end it” movement. “I’ve always supported it,” he said.
But at a candidates forum here in South Carolina’s capital on Friday morning, retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark came out swinging. He said Kerry, a four-term senator from Massachusetts, had been disingenuous.
“Sen. John Kerry did not take responsibility for what he has actually said about affirmative action,” Clark told a gathering at Benedict College, a historically black college in Columbia.
“It really bothers me, not because people can’t make mistakes in their life ... But when you make mistakes, you ought to fess up to it, take responsibility for it and correct it.”
Clark’s campaign put forward Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, who is black. She called Kerry “missing in action” when the debate over affirmative action was at its peak in the 1990s.
Kerry countered with a character witness: Rep. James E. Clyburn, a top African American leader in South Carolina. Clyburn said Kerry had fought along with Clinton and him to preserve programs to promote minorities.
“I am sorry that Gen. Clark is launching negative attacks,” Clyburn said in a statement. “The truth is that John Kerry has stood strong all his life to defend affirmative action.”
The issue could resonate in South Carolina, one of seven states that will hold presidential primaries or caucuses Tuesday. As many as half the Democrats expected to vote are black.
Clark has never pledged not to attack rivals but until Friday had promoted his as a positive campaign. Polls show Clark well down in the pack in South Carolina, after placing third in the New Hampshire primary.
Each candidate was given 10 minutes to present his case in the Center for Community Change forum, held at Columbia’s Township Auditorium.
Howard Dean waited until he was off the podium to attack Kerry. The former Vermont governor said that Kerry was able to pass 9 bills out of the 350 he introduced in his Senate career, and failed to pass any of the 11 healthcare measures he sponsored.
“I think Sen. Kerry is a fine person, but he hasn’t accomplished much in the Senate,” Dean said. “I think we need a doer, not a talker, as the nominee of this party.”
Kerry had said at the candidate’s debate a night earlier that Dean didn’t understand the congressional process. On Friday, Dean labeled that “Washington blather.”
“Of course I understand the congressional process,” Dean said. “The senator then went on to name several bills that he took credit for that didn’t have his name on them....”
“If Sen. Kerry had accomplished anything in healthcare, you ought to be able to explain to the people of South Carolina how come there are so many uninsured kids here. And there aren’t in my state.”
Kerry’s campaign responded by releasing a list of a dozen of the senator’s “legislative accomplishments,” saying he introduced or supported legislation that led to: continued protection against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction act; health benefits for the children of soldiers sickened by the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange; increased funding for the international fight on AIDS; and training aid for midcareer nurses, among other changes.
Kerry spokesman David Wade said Dean’s criticism was “anger-powered” and called him the “master of desperate distortions.”
Kerry tried to stay above the fray in stops in Columbia and the state of Delaware. He played up his military credentials and sought to deflate the contention by some Republicans that he was a liberal Northeasterner.
In South Carolina, he surrounded himself with fellow war veterans and comrades from his days as a Navy skipper during the Vietnam War. Seeking to draw the military and veterans’ vote, Kerry appeared with former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, a triple amputee in Vietnam, and Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, a World War II veteran.
Hollings said they had fought together for balanced budgets when it was not popular.
“He not only willingly laid his life on the line in Vietnam,” Hollings said, “he was willing to lay his life on the line politically in Massachusetts. Don’t give me that stuff about ‘liberal from Massachusetts.’ ”
Kerry was introduced by the Rev. David Alston of South Carolina, who served as a gunner on a boat Kerry commanded in the Mekong Delta. Alston described the former Navy lieutenant as someone who cared deeply about his crew under fire.
Among seven Democratic candidates, Kerry is viewed as having the strongest momentum going into Tuesday’s primaries. He won the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary handily.
Two union endorsements Friday helped solidify Kerry’s frontrunner status.
He pocketed an endorsement from the Communications Workers of America, which represents 700,000 employees in telecommunications, broadcasting and other fields. And the Michigan unit of the National Education Assn., representing public school teachers, backed him in a state that conducts its primary next week.
Kerry was not the only one being scrutinized Friday. Returning to the state where he was born for a full day of campaigning, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards did not always find the reception hospitable.
The moderator of a Columbia forum asked if voters should believe that Edwards understood the plight of the working poor and middle class. He won millions of dollars as a trial lawyer before winning his seat in the Senate in 1998.
“You talk about two Americas. Is it reasonable to think that you can relate to those who are less fortunate?” he was asked as the crowd applauded loudly.
“You’re right -- I’ve done very well,” Edwards said. “The problem is, most Americans ... they’re not doing fine, George Bush is taking very good care of people who are doing well. The problem is he is shutting off opportunities for all the people who are struggling.”
Again citing his upbringing as the son of a textile mill worker, Edwards said: “I will never forget where I came from, and you can take that to the bank.”
Edwards faced a difficult query from the mother of a young soldier killed in Iraq. Elaine Johnson of Orangeburg said her son had turned to the military because there were no other jobs, only to become “a casualty of an unjustifiable war.”
Johnson asked the North Carolina senator what he planned to do to create jobs. Edwards argued for more equitable trade policies and closing tax loopholes that he said rewarded companies for relocating overseas.
Although one poll shows Edwards locked with Kerry in a close fight for the lead in South Carolina, at least a few voters said they were frustrated by the broad brush style of his speech and lack of specifics.
“He didn’t say how he was going to do it,” said Sara Williams, a 54-year-old physician’s assistant. “I think it’s just his stump speech.... I wanted to hear how he’s going to do it.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton of New York, meanwhile, continued to press his campaign in South Carolina, where the black population has shown marked support for the African American minister.
In Columbia, Sharpton visited a high school and in the afternoon, he delivered his message of activism to about 500 students at Benedict College.
He urged young people to give up the ostentatious and sexist images of modern culture and work for something more substantive. “Ain’t nothing wrong with bling-bling, if you’re bling-blinging your way to some power,” Sharpton said.
Sharpton, whose poll numbers have fallen in the last few days from about 15% to 5% in some surveys, said he would not drop out of the race regardless of what happens Tuesday.
Times staff writers James Rainey Eric Slater, Robin Abcarian, Mark Z. Barabak and Matea Gold, and Times staff researcher Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.