Democratic Presidential Debate Transcript: Opening

LARRY KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you very much. Good evening, everybody, from this beautiful university, the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, before a wonderful crowd of folks. There are four Democratic candidates, myself and two questioners from the Los Angeles Times. This is a combined presentation of CNN and the Los Angeles Times. It'll run 90 minutes.

As you can tell by the setting, this is going to be very informal. There are no strict rules of debate, no opening speeches, no closing comments. We'll question them. They can question each other. And we hope that you benefit from this by learning better who's going to lead this country in the next four years.

With us tonight is Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, the Reverend Al Sharpton and Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.

With me to question the candidates are Janet Clayton, the editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times, and the Los Angeles Times national political correspondent, Ron Brownstein.

I'll start the go-round. We can jump in at any time. And we'll start with Senator Edwards.

The other day, you said that you can inspire this nation. Do you mean then Senator Kerry cannot?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D-NC), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No. What I mean is that somebody who comes from the same place that most Americans come from, I grew up the son of a mill worker, in a family like most families in this country. I've seen the problems that people face every day in their lives...

KING: And now you're saying Senator Kerry doesn't see that?

EDWARDS: I'm saying he comes from a different background. I mean, he's a good man. He's a good candidate. He'd make a good president. And I'd be the first to say that. But we come from different places, and we present different choices.

And throughout the course of this campaign, I have talked about issues that are in here: poverty, race, civil rights, things that I care about deeply, things I think go to the core of what the Democratic Party's about.

KING: So you didn't mean to imply that you and the others can't?

EDWARDS: No, I know that I can, is what I'm saying.

KING: It's just that you can?

Did you take any offense to that?

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: None whatsoever. I think John has a run a terrific campaign. He and I are friends, and I don't take offense at that.

And I respect completely where John comes from and the story of his life. It's an American story. But there are many other American stories, Larry. I've had experiences that John hasn't had and others here haven't had. And we all bring to the table our life.

I believe that my 35 years of experience fighting against powerful forces in this country that don't want to do things for the very people John is talking about, and leading and fighting in international affairs, national security, military affairs, is critical to what this country needs today in terms of leadership.

KING: You're saying you're just different?

KERRY: Well, of course we're different. But I think what's important is, all my life, all my life, from the time that I fought in a war alongside many of the people who had a very different life experience from me -- I mean, the kids I fought with were kids out of the barrios of Los Angeles, and the kids from South Central of Los Angeles, and from the south side of Chicago and South Boston and a lot of other places, because they couldn't get out of the draft. They didn't know how to make those phone calls. They didn't have the ability to have a choice.

And when I came back from Vietnam, I spent a lot of my years fighting for those people to be able to get ahead. And I've spent all my life doing that, and I intend to do that as president of the United States.

RON BROWNSTEIN, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Senator Edwards, can I jump in?

Are you saying that biography is the central difference in the choice that you represent versus Senator Kerry? Or is there a broader difference in the direction you would offer the party as the nominee and the country as the president?

EDWARDS: There's a fundamental question here, Ron, that has to be decided by voters in this country -- Democratic primary voters -- which is, first, do we need real change in America and real change in Washington, D.C.? If people believe we do, I do.

Then the second question is: Do you believe that change is more likely to be brought about by someone who has spent 20 years in Washington, or by someone who's more of outsider to this process -- somebody who comes from the same place that most Americans come from?

That is a fundamental choice.

If I can go back for a brief second to...

KING: Well, I want to clue the other two, too.

EDWARDS: Absolutely. Well, I don't want to interrupt. Let...

KING: Reverend Sharpton, why are you in this race?

REV. AL SHARPTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, let me say this. First of all, I do not think that it is fair to say that there are two Americas. There are many Americas. Our only problem in America is not just class. Many of us have problems that have succumbed to class barriers but still have the race barriers, or the barriers of language if you are Latino, or the barriers of sexual discrimination if you are, one, a woman or gay and lesbian.

So I think it's very simplistic to just say that it's two Americas, one for the wealthy, one for the poor.

Earl Graves, who supports my campaign, very wealthy man, but still faces discrimination. Gays and lesbians, they may make a lot of money, they still face discrimination. Latinos that have problems because of language discrimination. So I don't think that it's as simple as class.

I also think if we're talking about experience -- I was talking with Bishop Brookings (ph) who is here with me tonight. I don't see how anyone that supports civil rights could support the Patriot Act.

You talk about a difference of direction, Senator Edwards, the Patriot Act...


The Patriot Act that you supported is J. Edgar Hoover's dream. It's John Ashcroft's dream. We have police misconduct problems in California, Ohio, Georgia, New York, right now.

KING: The question...

SHARPTON: And your legislation helps police get more power.

So I think that we've got to really be honest if we're talking about change. Change how, and for who? That's why I am in this race.


BROWNSTEIN: Reverend Sharpton, earlier in this race, you've also said, in response to something from Senator Edwards, that where you come from doesn't really guarantee where you'll end up. There are plenty of wealthy people who are good, and there are plenty of less affluent people who haven't been as good.

Now you're saying the two Americas doesn't add up either.

SHARPTON: No, no, I didn't say that. I didn't say that at all.

BROWNSTEIN: Is it two Americas -- you say the two Americas is not the total picture.

When you add up both of these things, what are you saying about Senator Edwards...

SHARPTON: No, no, no, I say that...

BROWNSTEIN: ... and his message? Are you saying that there is something inauthentic about what he is saying?

SHARPTON: I defended -- no, I defended Senator Edwards, saying, when he was attacked for raising class, I think that it is good that he does that. But I don't think we should stop at class.

If we're going to talk about the differences of background in America, he is right to say there is a difference in America. But we can't limit it to just class. We've also got to deal with race, we've got to deal with gender, we've got to deal with sexuality.

KING: Are you...

SHARPTON: And we've got to deal with discrimination based on language. That's what I'm saying.

KING: But this was only the first question.


SHARPTON: But he's got two answers to one. I'm trying to get mine. I believe in affirmative action.



KING: I'm following you around, Al.


Congressman Kucinich, why are you here?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm here to provide the people of this country with a real choice in this election. Some of the differences that are here are stylistic. I'm offering some substantive change in this country.

KING: But logically, it appears like you're up against it. Why stay in?

KUCINICH: Well, because I'm the voice for getting out of Iraq, for universal single-payer health care, for getting out of NAFTA and the WTO...


... for having our children go to college tuition-free, for saving Social Security from privatization.

KING: But you can have that voice as a congressman. You can have that voice as...

KUCINICH: And I have that voice as a congressman. In this race, though, there are real differences of opinion, Larry. And this is what this debate is about today.

I led the effort in the House of Representatives in challenging the Bush administration's march toward war. Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards both voted for that war.

I led the effort against the Patriot Act. Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards both voted for it.

I mean, there are differences.

KING: You're here to make statements then?

KUCINICH: Oh, no, no. I'm here to be the next president of the United States...

KING: But, logically, that doesn't appear to be happening.

KUCINICH: But you know what? That's a conclusion that the people watching tonight will be able to make, not the media.

KING: All right. I want to...