NEW YORK - After weeks of tension and competition, pure frustration spurted out as the last four Democratic presidential candidates yesterday shed their cloak of cordiality and jockeyed for air time in their feistiest debate yet.
Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.), who has three times as many delegates as his leading rival, Sen. John Edwards (D., N.C.), suggested that the one-term Mr. Edwards was too inexperienced for the job of president.
Mr. Edwards retorted that Mr. Kerry, who has been a senator for 19 years, is a Washington insider who would deliver “the same old Washington talk that people have been listening to for decades.”
Hosted by CBS News and the New York Times in advance of tomorrow s primary voting, when 1,151 delegates are at stake in 10 states, the debate saw New York activist the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland) shouting to be heard and accusing the moderator, CBS anchor Dan Rather, of not giving them time to answer while favoring Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards. There was no audience.
Mr. Edwards repeatedly snapped, “If you ll let me finish,” as Mr. Kerry, Mr. Sharpton, Mr. Rather, Mr. Kucinich, and questioners Elizabeth Bumiller of the New York Times and Andrew Kirtzman of WCBS-TV in New York kept stepping on his lines.
At one point, Ms. Bumiller told Mr. Sharpton that she wouldn t tolerate being addressed as sharply as he spoke to her when he accused her of treating himself and Mr. Kucinich as “window dressing.”
Then when complaints mounted that the debate was turning into a free-for-all, she said, “You re in New York.”
At one point, Mr. Edwards quoted an article from the Washington Post to accuse Mr. Kerry of misrepresenting his spending plans. The article claims that Mr. Kerry s programs would exceed the country s available funds by $165 billion.
Mr. Kerry said he thought “John [Edwards] would have learned by now not to believe everything he reads in a newspaper. And he should do his homework.” Mr. Kerry said the Post article did not include the $139 billion he would save by reducing the “bad” Medicare prescription drug coverage that Republicans pushed through Congress, and it did not include his stimulus package to jumpstart the economy.
Mr. Edwards was asked if people know he s rich when he keeps talking as though he s poor (he was the first in his millworker family to go to college). His trial-lawyer background has provided him with “upward of $36 million,” a $4 million house in Washington, a $1 million beach house, and a $1 million house in Raleigh, N.C.
Mr. Edwards said people know that he has done well and that he wants to give all Americans a chance to do well also. He also said Mr. Kerry, whose wife s fortune is estimated at about $500 million, should be asked the same question because his assets are greater.
Without significant runs, hits, or errors in the debate, which could be the Democrats last group-conflict encounter this year if Mr. Kerry does well tomorrow, he remains the man to beat.
Going into tomorrow s contests, Mr. Kerry has 754 delegates; Mr. Edwards has 220; Howard Dean, who has stopped campaigning after spending $40 million and not winning a single primary, has 175; Mr. Sharpton has 16, and Mr. Kucinich has 9. To snare the party nomination, 2,162 delegates are required.
During and after the debate, in a “spin room” where each candidate and his surrogates attempted to put the best face forward, Mr. Edwards was asked if he would take the vice presidential spot if Mr. Kerry gets the party s nod.
Increasingly frustrated by the question, he said he was determined to win. A CBS poll of 1,545 adults taken late last week found that a Kerry-Edwards ticket would beat Bush-Cheney, 50 percent to 42 percent, if the election were held right now, not counting independent Ralph Nader, whom many Democrats think might be a spoiler if the election is close.
But Mr. Edwards said yesterday even if he loses every state tomorrow, he still will go on to March 9, when Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi hold their primaries. And, he said, he thought the debate yesterday went “very, very well” because people got a chance to see how he differs from Mr. Kerry.
Mr. Edwards, with his wife, Elizabeth, standing beside him, said, “We feel very good.” But he refused to predict if he would win any primaries tomorrow. If he loses in Georgia, Minnesota, and Ohio, where he has put in the most effort, even some of his close advisers say continuing his presidential bid would be hard to justify.
The departure of Haiti s president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, from that chaotic country yesterday gave the candidates a chance to attack President Bush, accusing him of ignoring the problems in Haiti and doing too little, too late to address the violence there, as Mr. Kerry put it.
As the candidates did Thursday in Los Angeles, they sparred over trade, with Mr. Kerry again insisting he and Mr. Edwards have the same trade policy - that the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement and other trade agreements are basically sound but need labor and environmental protections.
Mr. Edwards snapped that he and Mr. Kerry do not agree on trade but failed to spell out what the clear differences are except to ridicule Mr. Kerry s call for a 120-day review of trade agreements. Tell a worker in Ohio who just lost his job that a committee is reviewing it, he said.
Mr. Kucinich and Mr. Sharpton said the trade agreements should be abolished.
They batted around the issue of gay marriage vs. civil unions, likely to be a cultural flashpoint in the campaign. Mr. Kucinich and Mr. Sharpton favor gay marriage; Mr. Edwards and Mr. Kerry seemed uncomfortable with the question, saying marriage is between one man and one woman but that they support equal rights and civil unions.