NEW YORK — Sen. John Edwards, who has made international trade a key part of his campaign, stumbled Monday when asked about looming European trade sanctions, spotlighting doubts about his familiarity with foreign policy.
Edwards, a first-term senator from North Carolina, has come under increased scrutiny since his emergence as the sole major rival to the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
While Edwards is generally regarded as the more engaging campaigner, his meager background on defense matters and foreign affairs is seen by many analysts as a potential weakness in a post-Sept. 11 world.
Asked over the last week about an assortment of international topics, Edwards often responded with answers that went little beyond a condemnation of the Bush administration. On Monday, Edwards was apparently caught off guard by a question regarding a contentious dispute between the United States and the European Union.
The EU, an economic and political association of 15 countries, has threatened to impose retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods next month if Congress does not repeal a corporate tax credit that the World Trade Organization has decreed is an illegal subsidy to businesses.
"I'm not sure I even know what you're talking about," Edwards said when asked if he supports the corporate tax credits. "If I understand what you're asking, and I'm not sure I do ... I'm opposed to us using our tax system to give tax breaks to American companies who are shipping jobs overseas."
But the issue does not involve outsourcing jobs -- it revolves around the federal tax code that gives credits to corporations that export goods overseas.
The EU said it would enact the retaliatory tariffs on hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. goods if Congress does not repeal the measure. Congressional leaders are holding out for a three-year transitional period.
"The answer here is not to have a trade war, not to have either side impose tariffs that will create a trade war internationally," Edwards told reporters after a campaign stop at a Manhattan union hall.
Later, a campaign spokeswoman dismissed the importance of Edwards' admitted lack of familiarity with the subject.
"When the American people make a decision about security, about who they trust to lead the country, I don't think they're going to be concerned about a relatively obscure dispute between the European Union and the U.S. on a corporate tax credit," said Edwards spokewoman Jennifer Palmieri.
But others said the episode highlighted what may be one of the steepest hurdles Edwards faces in his effort to overtake Kerry as they head for a showdown in California and nine other states holding primaries or caucuses March 2.
"Edwards' pluses are he's young, he's fresh, he taps domestic economic unease," said Benjamin Page, a professor of public policy at Northwestern University and specialist in foreign affairs. "The big gap is that he just doesn't have a lot of foreign policy experience."
Edwards, a trial attorney before his 1998 election to the Senate, has delivered two major speeches detailing his foreign policy views during the course of the campaign. His main campaign focus has been economic circumstances at home.
As the presidential race moved during the last month to a series of states hard hit by job losses, Edwards further refined his message, emerging as a harsh critic of trade deals he blamed for decimating the nation's manufacturing industry.
Kerry, meanwhile, has made his defense and foreign policy credentials a central part of his campaign. The Vietnam veteran has spent nearly 20 years on Capitol Hill, serving the entire time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
During an appearance Sunday on ABC's "This Week," he said his years of experience "in international security, foreign policy and military affairs ... makes an enormous difference" in what he offers as a candidate.
"I think the world is looking for leadership that is tested and sure," he said.
In recent days, Edwards has been pressed by reporters for his views on foreign policy matters. He generally has responded without much specificity.
On Monday, he was asked about the uprising in Haiti and a U.S.-brokered proposal to end the strife. The plan, which so far has not been accepted by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, would allow the beleaguered leader to finish his term in 2006 if he accepts the appointment of a new prime minister approved by rebels and allows parliamentary elections that should have occurred last year.
"I think for the time being, that's the correct approach," Edwards said. "I think we just have to continue to evaluate it."
Last week, Edwards offered vague answers in discussing U.S. policy toward Asia, and North and South Korea.
Edwards said his approach would be "something different than what the administration has, which is almost a nonexistent policy." He also said Bush has "alienated a lot of the South Korean leadership."