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Edwards back on trail at healthcare forum

The labor-sponsored event gathers six Democratic hopefuls.

March 25, 2007|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Former Sen. John Edwards, joined by his wife, Elizabeth, returned Saturday to the give-and-take of presidential campaigning with a pledge to stay in the Democratic race "for the duration" and a challenge to rivals to spell out their plans for universal healthcare coverage.

"One of the reasons I want to be president is to make sure every woman and every person in America gets the same kind of things that we have," the former North Carolina senator said of the wealthy couple's access to top-notch medical treatment. "No American should have to worry about that."

The appearance was Edwards' first in public since announcing plans to press on with his candidacy after learning that his wife's breast cancer has returned in incurable, but treatable, form. The fact that it came at a labor forum dedicated to healthcare was coincidental. But the emotional backdrop lent their appearance -- Edwards on stage, his wife in the audience -- greater poignancy, and added weight to an issue he has already emphasized in his campaign.

First, however, he had to address questions about his political viability and capacity to operate under increased stress. Looking worn, with puffy bags under his eyes, Edwards told moderator Karen Tumulty of Time magazine, "I'm definitely in the race for the duration.

"We know what it's like to function in a very difficult environment," Edwards said, mentioning the death of the couple's teenage son more than a decade ago and Elizabeth Edwards' first round of treatment for breast cancer after the 2004 campaign. "I know, because we've done it in the past, that we can do it."

The forum on the University of Nevada campus, near the Las Vegas Strip, featured six of the Democratic White House contestants, each appearing separately. None of the Republican hopefuls appeared, possibly because the sponsors -- the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Service Employees International Union -- are so closely associated with Democratic campaigns and causes.

The session was tamer than one held about a month earlier in Carson City. This time, the war in Iraq was mentioned only in passing, as a drain on money the candidates would rather spend on needs such as healthcare.

The biggest disagreement among the major contenders was over the need to raise taxes to pay for universal coverage, a shared goal.

Edwards, who has offered the most detailed healthcare proposal, said his plan would cost up to $120 billion annually and be financed by raising taxes on families making more than $200,000 a year.

"We don't get universal healthcare for free," Edwards said, suggesting the candidates needed to be honest with voters. "Honesty starts right here in the campaign."

No other candidate signed on to Edwards' tax increase, though Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois said there might be a need for added revenue "on the front end," as Obama put it, that could be recouped through savings later.

Participating in his first such candidate forum, Obama seemed more tentative than usual. He promised his own detailed healthcare plan in the next few months, but suggested the more important question was whether there was "the political will and sense of urgency to actually get it done."

Clinton, who led the unsuccessful effort to expand healthcare coverage during her husband's administration, said she would start by ending "insurance discrimination" that allows companies to refuse coverage to applicants with pre-existing conditions. Like others, she called for greater investment in prevention programs and improved technology, using the savings to make care more widely available.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was the most adamant in ruling out tax increases and offered the most optimistic timetable, saying universal coverage could be implemented within a year by modifying the existing system and making better use of the trillions annually spent on healthcare.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut trumpeted his accomplishments in Washington, including his authorship of the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act. After 30-plus years on Capitol Hill, Dodd said, he had the personal relationships to get started on a healthcare overhaul the day he became president.

The candidates facing the longest odds offered the most dramatic proposals. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio called for a government-run, not-for-profit healthcare system, and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska proposed a system that would distribute vouchers so Americans could shop for coverage.

"I know the system up close and personal," Gravel said, noting that medical bills had driven him into personal bankruptcy.

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