Verbal jabs intensify for `Super' vote

Edwards sharpens attack on front-runner Kerry

Election 2004

March 01, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - John Edwards, toiling to reverse his fortunes and overtake front-runner John Kerry in a critical cluster of Democratic presidential contests tomorrow, unleashed his sharpest criticism of Kerry during a debate in New York as the two battled for votes in Maryland and the nine other "Super Tuesday" states.

The candidates sparred on trade, foreign policy and cultural issues before embarking on a blitz of last-minute campaigning. In tomorrow's elections, more than half of the delegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination are up for grabs.

Also at stake is the future of Edwards' candidacy. After winning just one contest, in his native South Carolina, to Kerry's 18, the North Carolina senator is desperate to score wins tomorrow to help keep his long-shot campaign alive.

Despite the view among some Democratic strategists that his bid will be over if victory evades him tomorrow, Edwards told one of his questioners during yesterday's debate that he would soldier on even if he loses all 10 of the contests. He also dismissed speculation that he is simply positioning himself for the No. 2 spot on a Kerry presidential ticket.

Edwards, who has set his sights on winning Georgia, Ohio and Minnesota tomorrow, was campaigning yesterday in New York, and he planned to spend today in Ohio. Kerry was also campaigning in New York and planned to begin a three-state swing today with an appearance in Baltimore before heading to Ohio and Georgia.

Combative debate

In a debate that was shorter and more combative than any so far, a scrappier-than-usual Edwards fought to outline differences between himself and Kerry. Edwards said the Massachusetts senator was "dead wrong" to equate the two candidates' positions on trade, and he billed Kerry's deficit-reduction plans as "the same old Washington talk that people have been listening to for decades."

The potshots kept Kerry, who polls show is leading by substantial margins in most of the states that vote tomorrow, from striking the above-the-fray tone that he has strived to maintain in recent weeks.

Yesterday, Kerry answered Edwards' swipes by pointing out that his North Carolina rival is a fellow Washington politician - "The last time I looked," Kerry said, "John ran for the United States Senate, and he's been there for five years" - just one who has far less experience.

"We're going to need a president who has the experience and the proven ability - proven ability - to be able to stand up and take on tough fights," Kerry said.

Still, Kerry reserved his direct rebukes for President Bush, whose polices he said had "empowered the insurgents" in Haiti. Bush was "late, as usual," to get involved, he said.

Edwards, who has stumbled on foreign policy questions and is working to erase the notion that he is a novice on world affairs, seemed more practiced than usual discussing the situation in Haiti, where President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the country yesterday amid a violent rebellion. Edwards, too, faulted Bush.

"He's ignored Haiti the same way he's ignored most of the countries in that hemisphere," Edwards said. "We should have been engaged over a long period of time in a serious way."

Later, Edwards denied that his inexperience on foreign policy was a weakness. "There is no deficiency," he said. "The issue here is not the length of your resume. The issue is the strength of your vision."

Throughout the hourlong debate, which was sponsored by CBS News and The New York Times, Edwards struggled to highlight the differences between himself and Kerry, denying that he is positioning himself to be the Democrats' vice presidential candidate.

"Oh no, no. Far from it," Edwards said when asked by moderator Dan Rather whether he was angling for the second spot on the ticket.

On trade, Edwards gave a litany of measures that he opposed and Kerry supported, including granting the president fast-track authority to speed trade pacts through Congress, and agreements with Singapore, Chile, sub-Saharan Africa and Caribbean nations.

But Kerry said the two had identical proposals for future trade pacts: to require that they include enforceable labor and environmental standards. Kerry said Edwards was trying to align himself with a "protectionist point of view," accusing him of exploiting the trade issue on the campaign trail.

Edwards "has talked more in the last five weeks about trade than he has in the last five years," Kerry said.

The two differed little on foreign policy questions. Neither Kerry nor Edwards would rule out taking military action against North Korea if it became clear that the nation had nuclear weapons and the means to use them, and posed a threat to Japan or other neighbors in the region. Both said Israel has the right to defend its borders by building a fence.

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