Morry Gash  /  AP
John Kerry, left, and Dennis Kucinich, center, listen as John Edwards answers a question during a Democratic debate in Milwaukee Sunday.
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updated 2/16/2004 7:10:42 AM ET 2004-02-16T12:10:42

Despite a more aggressive effort by Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) emerged mostly unscathed from Sunday night's debate and seemed closer to locking up the Democratic nomination over his fading rivals.

Edwards, in his own understated way, admonished Kerry, hitting the front-runner for promising spending and tax cuts the government can not afford and for delivering a long-winded explanation of his vote for the Iraq war.

But Edwards's effort to differentiate himself was mild as attacks go and did not seem likely to change the dynamics of a race that appears to many Democrats all but over. While Edwards did try to draw distinctions, former front-runner Howard Dean had nothing but kind words and sounded like a candidate on his way out of the race.

After winning 14 of the first 16 states, most by wide margins, Kerry essentially won Sunday's debate by not blowing it. There is no historical precedent for a candidate such as Dean (0 for 16) or Edwards (1 for 16) coming back from such a clear and consistent drubbing in every corner of the country.

Short of a scandal, leading Democrats predict, Kerry will officially wrap it up sometime next month, perhaps around March 2, Super Tuesday, when delegate-rich states from New York to California weigh in.

Edwards and Dean are both clinging to the fading hope that iconoclastic Wisconsin will shock the nation as it did in 1960, when voters picked John F. Kennedy over their well-liked neighbor, Minnesota Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey. Indeed, Edwards fashions himself as a 21st-century version of JFK -- young, handsome and optimistic.

Although Edwards's numbers have spiked a bit, public and private polling suggests another JFK will win Tuesday -- John Forbes Kerry. A recent American Research Group poll showed Kerry holding a 37 percentage point lead over Edwards, which squares with some other surveys. Edwards has vowed to stay in, win or lose, while Dean will retreat to Vermont, where aides predict he will call it quits. A top Edwards adviser hedged a bit last night, suggesting the senator might reevaluate his candidacy if he does not register a "respectable" second-place showing.

The rookie senator plans to make his move once it's one-on-one with Kerry, possibly after Tuesday's primary, but most Democratic operatives are skeptical he has much of a chance. The biggest reason: Voters rarely turn on an incumbent politician or strong front-runner unless serious doubts are raised about the candidate. Until last night, Edwards has refused to attack Kerry or even provide voters a clear alternative to him. The two men basically agree on almost every issue; Edwards has indirectly criticized Kerry for backing the North American Free Trade Agreement during the Clinton years, but the two candidates hold essentially the same position on trade today: Promote it, but only with strong protections for workers, human rights and the environment.

"I will not sign a trade agreement like the Central American Free Trade Agreement or the Free Trade of Americas Act that does not now embrace enforceable labor and environment standards," Kerry said last night.

Opposition to NAFTA
In a new ad, Edwards is touting his opposition to NAFTA, though he was not in the Senate when it was ratified.

"Keeping our jobs right here in this country -- where it belongs -- that's what this campaign is about," Edwards says in the ad. It does not mention Kerry by name, so voters most likely won't realize Edwards is trying to show how he differs from Kerry. When pressed by reporters on Sunday for differences on key issues, Edwards cited his plans for housing tax credits and clamping down on predatory lenders -- not necessarily the hefty issues that can bring down a front-runner or lift up an underdog.

Jennifer Palmieri, Edwards's spokeswoman, said the North Carolina senator was successful in Sunday night's debate in "drawing distinctions" with Kerry. "He thinks that when you are face to face with candidates, that's the time to say you disagree with them," she said.

Sunday night's debate reinforced the central importance of jobs and the economy in this election, particularly in this part of the country. Across the industrial Midwest, states are bleeding manufacturing jobs and clamoring for protections from foreign competitors and assistance for job training. Tower Automotive here in Milwaukee recently let it be known it will lay off 500 workers and move the jobs to Mexico.

It's an all too familiar story to many voters and one that is helping shape the early days of the election. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-WTMJ-TV poll released Tuesday showed two-thirds of likely Wisconsin primary voters were most concerned about jobs and employment as an issue.

Bush is betting he can restore most of the job loss before the election; his annual economic report predicted the creation of about 2.6 million new jobs, about the number lost under his watch.

By pulling back on trade, Dean and Al Sharpton said, Americans can and should expect to pay higher prices at Wal-Mart and other stores. "The bad news is if we do what I want to do on trade agreements, you are going to pay higher prices at Wal-Mart because their stuff is all made in China," Dean said.

This debate over the merits of trade and outsourcing U.S. jobs figures to be one the most contentious issues of the 2004 elections.

Procedural arcana
Kerry seemed cautious throughout the debate and on several occasions resorted to esoteric Senate parlance, talking about voting for a "process" on Iraq and favoring "sidebar" trade agreements. Many Democrats privately fear Kerry's penchant for slipping into procedural arcana will hurt him in a general election against Bush.

Kerry gave a long-winded explanation of his position on gay marriages, suggesting he might support a constitutional amendment banning them. "It depends on the terminology because it depends on what it does with respect to civil unions and partnership rights," he said.

The Massachusetts senator brushed aside criticism about his ties to special interests and boldly said he was ready to take on Bush, prompting Edwards to caution him that the race is not over yet. Talking about the Bush White House, Kerry said: "I am prepared to stand up to any attack they come at me with. . . . I am ready for what they throw at me."

Kerry promised to provide health coverage to 97 percent of Americans, lower education costs and retain tax cuts for everyone but those making more than $200,000 annually. Drawing an implicit distinction, Edwards said the country can not afford big tax cuts and big health care programs: "People need to know the truth about what we can afford and what we can't afford."

That was about as rough as it got last night, which was good news for the front-running Kerry.

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