SAN DIEGO — Democrats opened a new divide over taxes Sunday, as former Sen. John Edwards said he would consider an added levy on businesses and individuals reaping the kind of huge financial reward enjoyed by some of the nation's wealthiest investors.
Speaking as state party activists wound down their three-day convention in San Diego, the North Carolina Democrat told reporters that "paying additional taxes, an excess-profits, excess-income tax" was a notion "worthy of consideration." He did not offer specifics.
But New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who followed Edwards to the lectern after addressing delegates, swiftly disagreed. "Democrats, whenever we have a solution, we want to tax," Richardson said. "I'm different. I'm a tax cutter."
Under the weekend's random speaking order, Edwards and Richardson were the only White House hopefuls to speak to delegates Sunday. Their lesser role in the presidential pecking order was reflected by the many open seats in the San Diego Convention Center; more than 2,000 party activists turned out Saturday for Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
In all, delegates heard from seven of the eight Democratic contenders, a reflection of the state's increased clout since advancing its presidential primary to Feb. 5. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware was campaigning in South Carolina.
Edwards, who entered the hall to a pounding hip-hop rhythm and took more than five minutes to work his way from a side entrance to the stage, received one of the strongest receptions of the weekend after delivering perhaps the widest-ranging speech. His remarks touched on race relations, environmental issues, AIDS in Africa and genocide in Darfur.
Joining Saturday's chorus of criticism of Bush and the war in Iraq, Edwards called for an immediate troop withdrawal and also pledged to shut down the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on his first day in office. "We are not the country of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib," he said. "The world needs to see our humanity."
Richardson delivered a looser, joke-filled address, lamenting at one point his low standing in opinion polls by referring to a conversation with his 92-year-old mother. When he told her he was running for president, he said, she responded, "President of what?"
Turning serious, he also called for ending the war and touted his globe-trotting resume as a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and freelance diplomat-at-large.
"I'm asking you here -- all Californians, because you are awfully important: Vote on the basis of who's the most qualified, who has the most vision," Richardson said. "Not who's the biggest rock star, not who has the most money, not on legacies. But who has a plan for America."
The tax issue came up at a morning news conference, when Edwards was asked about a recent report that the nation's 25 highest-paid hedge fund managers collectively made $14 billion last year -- with each taking in an average of $570 million in compensation.
Edwards, who has drifted steadily to the left since he first ran in 2004, suggested that a windfall-profits tax on business and individuals might be a way to reduce the deficit while expanding healthcare and promoting energy independence, two of his priorities.
Asked if he worried about the political risk of openly mulling higher taxes, Edwards replied that it was important for candidates to level with voters about their plans. "I think honesty begins in the campaign," he said.
Another Democratic candidate, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, said after an address to union members in West Sacramento that he too would not rule out tax increases on the very wealthy as one way of providing some services. He added, however, that he was not issuing such a call Sunday.
"I wouldn't exclude it," Dodd said. "If your question is, 'Would you do that read-my-lips line?,' no."
On another front, Richardson confessed to a "mistake" in last week's first Democratic debate. Asked to name the model of a justice he would appoint to the Supreme Court, Richardson cited the late Byron R. White -- one of two dissenters in the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
Richardson was asked Sunday to square that response with his support for abortion rights. He fumbled at first, questioning whether White was on the court at the time of the 1973 decision. He then explained he had been "thinking really fast during the debate" and had chosen White because White was appointed by Richardson's hero, President Kennedy, and "was an All-American football player besides being a legal scholar."
The misstep, Richardson said, reflected his take-me-as-I-am philosophy. "You're getting somebody who's candid, who's honest, who's not going to be a consultant-driven candidate," he said. "That's pretty obvious, eh?"
Times staff writer Dan Morain contributed to this report.