MARGARET WARNER: There will be four candidates on stage in tonight's Democratic debate in Los Angeles. But the shrunken field will offer the closest thing yet to a head-to-head encounter between front-runner John Kerry and his last viable challenger, John Edwards.
What are the differences between these two candidates, and how deep do they really go? We explore that now with two senior advisers and media consultants to the rival campaigns: Mike Donilon, who is with Kerry; and David Axelrod, with Edwards. Welcome gentlemen to you both.
David Axelrod, what is... let me ask it in another way. A lot of people who go to both speeches, events, study the records of these two candidates, come to the conclusion that at least on policy matters there's not a huge difference. Are we wrong about that?
DAVID AXELROD: Well there are some differences certainly on the issue of trade there's a difference. Senator Kerry voted for every trade treaty that came before him in the senate. Senator Edwards has voted against most of them because they didn't have the safeguards that he felt were necessary for American workers, for the environment.
There are differences over campaign finance. Senator Edwards refuses all money from lobbyists, always has -- Washington lobbyists. Senator Kerry accepts those contributions. Senator Edwards wants to ban that. Senator Edwards has a more fulsome plan to help middle class people save and invest and send their kids to college but there's a lot on which they agree. There's no doubt - they're both Democrats. Senator Kerry is a good man and there is a lot of area of agreement.
Where the real difference comes in is on the issue of who is most credible in terms of getting up every day as president of the United States and fighting for the embattled middle class in this country, people who are struggling, people on the... across the great divide that has been created by the economic policies that we've seen the last few years. John Edwards, I think, does that as a matter of conviction. It's been the cause of his life. He's not a career Washington politician. He hasn't spent his life there. If people want that, they're not going to vote for him. If they want someone who has spent his life fighting for people, taking on powerful institutions on behalf of people both outside of Washington and in Washington, he is the guy who can do that. He's been inspiring people all over this country with a message about bringing these two Americas together into one.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Mike Donilon in here. Do you agree on policy matters there aren't huge differences but the ones that there are, are the ones that David Axelrod just enumerated say on trade?
MIKE DONILON: No, I wouldn't agree with that. The first thing is this is that the biggest difference between Senator Edwards and Senator Kerry is in the area of experience. Senator Kerry has fought for his country and fought for people for 35 years. I think if you looked in the "New York Times" today for example with endorsed Senator Kerry it made very clear the difference between these two candidates was a Senator... Senator Kerry a man who is ready to be president who has really thought through the wide range of problems facing this country and the tough problems facing people every day in their lives, as opposed to Senator Edwards who really has relatively little experience and is much newer to the stage.
So the real difference I think is in the area of experience and in the kind of leadership that Senator Kerry can provide for this country.
MARGARET WARNER: But you are talking about personal qualities rather than policy differences. Are you saying there really are no significant policy differences?
MIKE DONILON: Well, on the policy side, what I would suggest the differences are are these: First of all Senator Kerry has proposed a much bolder and a much more effective, we believe, health care plan, one that really goes after the issue of containing health care costs and bringing down those costs for families as well as businesses -- small businesses. We think that's a very effective way to go at a problem that is affecting so many people in this country.
With respect to trade, for example, the fact of the matter is Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards agree on what to do about the problem, which is we need to have labor and environmental standards in the core agreements. But what Senator Kerry's focused on is what are we going to do about it? What he has proposed doing going forward in terms of deal with trade and job creation is to provide new incentives for manufacturing in other companies that are prepared to keep jobs here in U.S. -- to close down those loopholes that provide rewards and incentives for companies who take job overseas and really look to see how we can provide real presidential leadership which is what has been lacking in the area of trade where President Bush has really failed to step forward as a real fighter for American workers. That's what Senator Kerry is prepared to do.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Axelrod, is there a big difference in terms of what to do going forward about, I mean, both candidates are hammering at this jobs going overseas and so on -- on the trade issue.
DAVID AXELROD: Yes I mean I think it's an interesting formulation that Mike puts forward and I've heard it before the last week or two. What he's saying really is disregard what Senator Kerry did all those years in the Senate when he voted for all those trade treaties. He now recognizes that they're problematical and now he's as president going to clean up some of the problems that he helped create when he voted for those treaties. There are a lot of people who recognized the problem at the time -- Senator Edwards being one of them.
I would say on health care, by the way, that there are differences between their plans. Senator Edwards' plan is the only plan that would insure that every child in America has health care by... as a birth right and I would certainly disagree that Senator Kerry has a more aggressive plan on cost containment than Senator Edwards who by the way has helped lead the fight in the Senate on some of these issues and particularly as they relate to the pharmaceutical industry, leading the fight for the Patients Bill of Rights. He has a long history of taking these issues on.
I would agree with Mike on one thing. There is a difference in experience. That's an important distinction. Senator Kerry has spent his life in politics in the political arena, much of it in Washington. And if people put a premium on that, then they certainly will support him. Senator Edwards has spent his life not in the political arena but fighting for people in courtrooms across this country and then coming to Washington and he has really kind of fought to change Washington in the time he's been there. That's what he'll do as president. He comes from a different place.
MARGARET WARNER: I want to get back to the personal qualities. Indulge me on the policy differences for another minute or so. What, Mike Donilon, about this issue that Senator Edwards hammers on and so did David Axelrod that in their voting past on trade there are differences?
MIKE DONILON: Well, the truth is that Senator Edwards has spoken more about trade in the last few weeks than he has in the previous several years. The fact of the matter is he gave an economic speech in this campaign about what he would do as president and did not mention trade or NAFTA once.
Now, Senator Kerry has been involved in the fight to create jobs and to fight for American workers for a long time. It's one of the reasons the leading defenders of working people in this country have endorsed his campaign. For example, Senator Kerry was one of the deciding votes and one of the people involved in the Clinton economic plan in the 1990s, which created over 20-plus million jobs, so we really think the issue here is, look, there's a long record of Senator Kerry being on the front lines in fighting for jobs and if you look at the proposals that he has put on the table to deal with this problem, to address the kind of pain that people are feeling all across this country with respect to job loss, he's proposed the most effective and aggressive way to deal with creating jobs in America going forward.
MARGARET WARNER: Briefly to you both, Mr. Axelrod, on foreign affairs on Iraq in particular they both voted for the war and then they both voted against the supplemental spending bill. Is there really a huge distinction between them that the voters need to know about?
DAVID AXELROD: Honestly, I don't think there's a big distinction. I think they both recognize the flaws in the Bush policy and in shunning the world in trying to deal with this issue and both recognize that we have to bring the world back in. I think there's a broad agreement on that.
MARGARET WARNER: Briefly on that do you agree - broad agreement?
MIKE DONILON: On that particular issue. Let me address this very quickly, which is with respect to the issue of experience I would suggest the fact that Senator Kerry has been involved in combat and has seen what war is actually one of the things people are looking at saying maybe this is a person who is ready to lead the country. And that experience goes far beyond whether or not he was in Washington.
MARGARET WARNER: So what I see is broad agreement between the two of you that what's really important in this race are personal qualities, personal history, experience. Is that right, Mr. Axelrod?
DAVID AXELROD: I think that's fair. I think positions float from that but I think that that's a fair summation, yeah.
MARGARET WARNER: You both think that… do you agree?
MIKE DONILON: I believe particularly given the problems and the seriousness of the problems that the country is facing today that the kind of experience that Senator Kerry is a distinct advantage in this race.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Axelrod?
DAVID AXELROD: I think we need a president who has the life experience that gives him a sense of identification with the struggles that people have. We have a president who is so removed from people right now. We need a president who understands the problems of the working families in this country because he's lived it and he's struggled through it and John Edwards is that person. He'll bring a personal commitment to these issues.
MARGARET WARNER: A lot of voters who say they want someone who cares about people like me have come out and voted for Mr. Edwards.
MIKE DONILON: I would suggest that many have voted for Senator Kerry as well. If you were to look through the series of campaigns from Iowa and to New Hampshire and beyond, Senator Kerry has spoken a great deal about the kind of problems people face with respect to health care, with respect to job loss, with respect to the struggles they face in terms of the increasing burdens and the day-to-day life. So I think Senator Kerry has demonstrated a very effective job in connecting with people and identifying with the concerns they're facing.
MARGARET WARNER: Gentleman, thank you... one last word from you.
DAVID AXELROD: I was going to say the difference is for John Edwards they're not the issues of the campaign. They're the cause of a lifetime. That's really the distinction in this campaign.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Thank you both very much.
JIM LEHRER: More about the policy differences between the Democratic candidates, including a quiz that helps you figure out which candidates you agree with most, can be found at the Online NewsHour.