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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Edwards, Kerry Come Out Swinging in Scrappy Debate

Democrats harden their criticisms on federal spending, trade and 'the same old Washington.'

March 01, 2004|Ronald Brownstein and Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — 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.

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.

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.

"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."

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.

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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