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Edwards, Kerry Come Out Swinging in Scrappy Debate

Times Staff Writers

A combative John Edwards sharpened long-standing attacks on John F. Kerry’s approach to trade and federal spending in a contentious -- and sometimes chaotic -- debate here Sunday, the final candidate forum before votes in 10 states that could effectively settle the Democratic presidential race.

With polls showing Kerry in position to dominate the results in Tuesday’s contests, Edwards challenged the Massachusetts senator in terms more forceful, and personal, than he has so far.

“This is the same old Washington talk that people have been listening to for decades,” Edwards said after one Kerry answer.

But Kerry held his ground, belittling Edwards’ arguments and escalating his own criticism of his rival by noting that the North Carolina senator had failed to vote in the 1994 election that gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

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At another point, Kerry rebuffed an Edwards charge by acridly insisting that his rival “should do his homework.”

The hourlong morning debate saw Kerry, Edwards, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York spar almost as much with the three media questioners as with one another.

Kerry and Edwards tussled most directly on three fronts: trade, the cost of Kerry’s agenda and Edwards’ claim that he will bring more-sweeping change to Washington.

The tougher tone taken by Edwards may have reflected what’s at stake for him in the Super Tuesday contests, which include primaries in California, New York, Ohio, Georgia and Maryland.

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Although Edwards said again Sunday that he would remain in the race regardless of Tuesday’s results, many Democratic leaders believe he will have difficulty sustaining a credible candidacy if he cannot topple Kerry in at least one -- and probably more -- of the states.

With polls showing Kerry holding leads of at least 2 to 1 in New York and California, Edwards’ best chances in the major contests may be Ohio and Georgia. But new surveys in those states have shown him trailing.

Although Edwards did not open any new lines of attack in Sunday’s debate, he broadened familiar arguments and framed others in much more barbed terms.

One of the sharpest exchanges came when Edwards repeated his frequent assertion that he was more likely to reform Washington because he was less connected to it than Kerry.

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“The fundamental issue in this election is whether the people of this country believe that we’re going to get change that originates in Washington or change that has to come from out here in the real world,” Edwards said.

Kerry fired back with more edge than in his past responses. “Now, I just listened to John talk about Washington, D.C.,” Kerry said. “Last time I looked, John ran for the United States Senate, and he’s been in the Senate for the last five years. That seems to me to be Washington, D.C.”

The tone was just as acrimonious on trade, the most consistent source of conflict between the two in the last month. Edwards derided Kerry’s contention that the two had no major differences on how to change U.S. trade policy.

“That’s not true,” Edwards said. “We have a very different record on trade. But more importantly, my approach to trade is fundamentally different than his.”

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Edwards then criticized Kerry’s declaration that if elected, he would appoint a panel to conduct a 120-day review of all American trade deals.

“We know what’s wrong with these trade agreements,” Edwards said. “They need to be changed. The president of the United States needs to be willing to change them.”

Kerry defended his proposed review, then said he held “exactly the same position” as Edwards on future deals: that the U.S. should sign no “trade agreement that does not also have labor and environment standards contained within it.”

Edwards then seized on a Washington Post story published Sunday that claimed Kerry had proposed spending more money on new programs than his planned changes to tax policy would raise. Kerry has called for cutting corporate subsidies and repealing the portions of President Bush’s tax cut benefiting families earning more than about $200,000 a year.

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Citing the Post story, Edwards said Kerry’s agenda “would drive us deeper and deeper into deficit.”

Kerry disputed the Post story, saying it mistakenly calculated the cost of his economic stimulus package and ignored savings he says he would generate by revising the Medicare prescription drug bill Congress passed last year.

A few moments later, Kerry returned to the trade issue. “John Edwards has been in the Senate for five years,” Kerry charged. “He’s talked more in the last five weeks about trade than he has in the entire five years.”

Kerry added: “The fact is that he didn’t vote in the 1994 election when he had a chance to vote about trade. He didn’t talk about it, against it, in his election in 1998 when he ran for the Senate.”

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In fact, while Edwards did not stress trade policy in his 1998 campaign -- partly because his Republican rival also opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement -- he did express his skepticism about the pact at the time.

On the voting issue, the Kerry campaign after the debate issued records from the North Carolina State Board of Elections showing that Edwards, then a private attorney, did not cast a ballot in the 1994 election, the first held after Congress approved NAFTA in 1993.

At times, the debate felt like an argument on a New York street corner where everyone tries to talk at once. Edwards, who has seemed virtually unflappable in almost all of the earlier debates, regularly appeared piqued at Kerry’s responses.

Kerry, while remaining cooler, sometimes reverted to the windy style that has plagued him periodically on the campaign trail. The front-runner also seemed annoyed that the questioners frequently interrupted the candidates after they had said only a few words.

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Sharpton complained, in a testy exchange with New York Times reporter Elizabeth Bumiller, that the questioners were ignoring him.

“If we’re going to have a discussion just between two [Kerry and Edwards] -- in your arrogance, you can try that, but ... I think that your attempt to do this is blatant, and I’m going to call you out on it, because I’m not going to sit here and be window dressing,” Sharpton said.

“Well, I’m not going to be addressed like this,” Bumiller responded.

“Well, then, let all of us speak,” Sharpton said.

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On other subjects, the candidates criticized Bush’s handling of the crisis in Haiti that led to Sunday’s resignation by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

While declaring that Aristide “has made plenty of mistakes,” Kerry charged that Bush “contributed to the clash you have today” by declaring he would not provide aid unless Aristide reached agreement with the rebels to share power.

Sharpton, who had been planning to travel to Haiti to attempt mediation on Wednesday, said that by not providing aid, Bush “almost set up a situation where Aristide had to fail.”

Edwards said the U.S. should contribute troops to a United Nations force to stabilize the country but insist on a “political process ... that allows us to move toward a serious democratic election, so that the people of Haiti are satisfied with the result.”

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Kerry responded forcefully to a question that noted the nonpartisan National Journal had recently judged his voting record to be the Senate’s most liberal last year. Citing his support for deficit reduction in the 1980s and President Clinton’s plan to hire 100,000 new police officers, Kerry asked: “Does that make me a conservative?”

In that characterization, Kerry received support of a sort from Sharpton and Kucinich. Both said that from their perspective, Kerry did not qualify as a liberal.

“I don’t think so, because he voted for the war [in Iraq],” Kucinich said.

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Times staff writer Scott Martelle contributed to this report.


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