Candidates Highlight Differences Before Tuesday Showdown

The Super Tuesday primary will be crucial for Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the main rival to the Democratic front-runner, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Edwards faces an uphill battle according to most public opinion polls, which indicate Kerry has a strong lead in most of the ten states.

California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont will hold primary elections Tuesday. Four of the candidates who remain on the ballot will be competing for votes in their home state: former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Kerry who represents Massachusetts in the Senate, and the Rev. Al Sharpton who is from New York.

The contest is widely seen as a possible final showdown between Kerry and Edwards. Dean has stopped actively campaigning and Kucinich and Sharpton are considered long shots to win any of the states holding elections.

According to his Web site, Edwards is scheduled to campaign in Minnesota, Ohio, Georgia and New York over the next few days, while Kerry’s online calendar says he is scheduled to appear in California, Maryland, Ohio, New York and Georgia.

Reports from the campaign trail have indicated that Edwards hopes to appeal to working-class and rural Americans and to reach out to supporters of Dean.

During Thursday’s debate Kerry and Edwards sought to delineate their differences.

Edwards contrasted his upbringing and background to Kerry’s, telling the audience and moderator Larry King of CNN that their differences offer voters a choice.

“I’m saying [Kerry] comes from a different background. I mean, he’s a good man. He’s a good candidate. He’d make a good president. And I’d be the first to say that. But we come from different places, and we present different choices,” Edwards said.

As Edwards touted his “outsider” status, Kerry talked up his experience in the Senate, especially on foreign affairs and defense issues.

“I believe that my 35 years of experience fighting against powerful forces in this country that don’t want to do things for the very people John (Edwards) is talking about, and leading and fighting in international affairs, national security, military affairs, is critical to what this country needs today in terms of leadership,” Kerry said.

Edwards highlighted his strength with independent voters in places like Wisconsin, where post-election polls showed him with a substantial amount of independent support, and in the South, where he says he would be a better competitor against President Bush.

“[W]e have to be able to compete in all these parts of the country,” Edwards said. “If you step back from this for just a minute and you think about the states where we have to be able to be successful, places like Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia, Ohio, which Senator Kerry just made reference to, New Hampshire, which will probably be a swing state this fall, when I go through those states one-by-one, all states that we need to win and we need to do well with, I would concede that Senator Kerry may have an advantage in New Hampshire.”

Kerry in turn pointed to his winning record in primary race thus far. He also claimed to have won support from independents and crossover voters.

“[T]here’s nothing, nothing in the returns in 18 out of 20 primaries and caucuses so far that documents what John Edwards has just said,” Kerry said. “I won independents and Republicans in Iowa.”

The candidates also sparred on trade issues with Edwards criticizing Kerry’s support of certain trade agreements while Kerry accused Edwards of being a latecomer to the debate over trade.

“I have seen up close what happens when mills and factories close. I saw what happened in my own hometown when the mill that my father worked in closed,” Edwards said. “I saw the faces of the men and women who had worked there — and I’d worked there myself when I was young — had worked in that mill for decades, done the right thing, been responsible, and all of a sudden, they had nowhere left to go, nowhere left to go. I take this very, very personally.”

Edwards then sought to a draw a difference between himself and Kerry on the trade issue.

“In fairness, we both voted for permanent normal trade relations for China,” Edwards said. “But if you look at the remainder of our record, I voted against final fast track authority for this president. Senator Kerry voted for it. I voted against the Chilean trade agreement; he voted for it. I voted against the Singapore trade agreement; he voted for it. I voted against the African trade agreement; he voted for it. I voted against the Caribbean trade agreement; he voted for it. I wasn’t in the Congress when NAFTA was passed; he voted for it. But when I campaigned for the Senate, I campaigned against it.”

Edwards added, “What [Kerry] is saying now is different than some of the votes he’s cast in the past.”

In response, Kerry said that Edwards in the past has made contradictory statements on trade or not discussed it at all.

“Well, I am surprised, because in his major speech on the economy in Georgetown this past June, John (Edwards) never even mentioned trade,” Kerry said. “And the fact is that, just the other day in New York, in The New York Times, he is quoted as saying to The New York Times that he thought NAFTA was important for our prosperity. Now he’s claiming that he was against it and these other agreements.”

Both men said they would fight for more stringent worker and environmental protections in trade agreements, but disagreed over who had the better record in arguing for them.

One of the clearest lines of distinction between Kerry and Edwards emerged when the candidates were questioned about the death penalty.

Kerry said his “instinct” when contemplating those guilty of crimes like the murder of children is “to want to strangle that person with my own hands.”

However, Kerry said the U.S. death penalty system was flawed and uncivilized.

“[W]e have 111 people who have been now released from death row — death row, let alone the rest of the prison system — because of DNA evidence that showed they didn’t commit the crime of which they were convicted,” Kerry said.

“Secondly, I don’t believe that, in the end, you advance the, sort of, level of your justice and the system of your civility as a nation — and many other nations in the world, most of the other nations in the world, have adopted that idea, that the state should not engage in killing.”

For his part Edwards said some crimes merit the death penalty and cited a gruesome, racially motivated murder in Texas.

“[I] think there are some crimes — those men who dragged James Byrd behind that truck in Texas, they deserve the death penalty,” Edwards said. “And I think there are some crimes that deserve the ultimate punishment.”

Edwards also said that innocent people are sometimes wrongly accused and steps should be taken to reform the system and each state should be able to decide whether to have the death penalty.

The senators also sparred on the issue of campaign financing. Both men agreed the system needs to be reformed but they chided one another for the source of some of their campaign contributions.

Edwards proudly said he had taken no money from Washington lobbyists or Political Action Committees.

Kerry, however, said that half of Edwards’ campaign money has come from trial lawyers, a special interest group that tries to influence legislation.

Both men heavily criticized President Bush for the handling of the war in Iraq, but both said they felt like they did the right thing in voting for the resolution that gave congressional authority to the president.

On the issue of same-sex marriage, both candidates said they believed that states should be allowed to make their own laws and both said President Bush’s proposal for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage is politically motivated.

Kerry and Edwards both expressed respect for each other and Edwards said that if he won the nomination, he would consider Kerry for his vice president. Kerry said he has not yet considered whom he would choose for his vice president.

The number of delegate votes at state on Tuesday amount to 1,151, about 27 percent of the total needed to win the Democratic nomination.