Charles Krupa  /  AP
John Kerry, left, and John Edwards applaud before the start of Thursday's debate.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/27/2004 12:48:23 AM ET 2004-02-27T05:48:23

Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards both reiterated their opposition to gay marriage but also opposed a constitutional amendment to ban it as they struggled Thursday to define their differences in a debate five days before "Super Tuesday."

As the debate got under way, both men, who have very similar voting records in the U.S. Senate, had difficulty in answering the first question from moderator Larry King on what constitutes the fundamental difference between their candidacies.

Edwards said he is "somebody who comes from the same place most Americans come from" while Kerry "comes from a different background."

"I've had experiences that John hasn't had," Kerry responded.

Edwards cast his single term in the Senate with the much longer tenure of Kerry in politics as a key difference.

Sparring over fall election
Kerry and Edwards also sparred about which one of the two has the better chance to defeat Bush this fall.

Asked whether he thought the Massachusetts senator could appeal to voters in Southern and border states, the South Carolina-born Edwards responded, “I think that’s his test. ... I know I can,” he added.

But Kerry quickly said he, like Edwards, can appeal to independent voters and even Republicans that the party will need to prevail in November. He pointed out that he has won 18 of 20 primaries and caucuses to date, including Tennessee and Virginia.

The debate unfolded in close quarters on a stage at the University of Southern California. It was the eighth debate of the 2004 year, and unlike the others, this time the contestants sat elbow-to-elbow around a table. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Al Sharpton also had seats at the table, unwilling to leave the race despite an unbroken string of primary and caucus defeats.

CNN’s King was joined by Ron Brownstein and Janet Clayton of the Los Angeles Times as questioners.

Rosie O'Donnell's wedding day
On the day that celebrity Rosie O’Donnell was married to her longtime girlfriend, Kerry and Edwards both sharply criticized Bush for his request to Congress to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.

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“He’s doing this because he’s in (political) trouble. ... He’s playing politics with the Constitution of the United States,” said Kerry, the front-runner for the nomination, at a presidential debate.

“This president is talking ... about amending the constitution for a problem that does not exist,” Edwards said.

Brownstein asked the gay marriage question. Noting that O’Donnell had been married a few hours earlier in San Francisco, he asked Kerry why other states should be required to recognize a license the couple received from city officials. He also asked the senator why he had opposed legislation in 1996 that would have allowed states to deny such recognition.

Directly contradicting a claim made by Bush, Kerry said the Constitution does not require states to recognize gay marriage licenses granted elsewhere in the country.

“I think, in fact, that no state has to recognize something that is against their public policy,” he said. And for two centuries, “we have left marriage up to the states.”

'Cultural war' alleged
Sharpening his attack on Bush, Kerry said the president “always tries to create a cultural war and seek the lowest common denominator ...”

Edwards said gay marriage “is an issue that ought to be decided in the states. I think the federal government should honor whatever decision is made by the states.”

The North Carolina senator also said he would have voted against the Defense of Marriage Act that Kerry opposed in 1996 because he disagreed with part of it. He said he was opposed to a provision that would have let the federal government ignore state-licensed marriages.

Video: Kerry, Edwards on gay marriage The two did disagree somewhat on the use of the death penalty. Confronted with a question about a child killer, Kerry said his instinct “is to want to strangle that person with my own hands,” but the former prosecutor added that he favors the death penalty only for cases of terrorism.

Edwards, a Southern-bred politician, differed, saying there are other crimes that “deserve the ultimate punishment.” He cited as an example the killers of James Byrd, a black man who was dragged to death from a pickup truck in 1998 in Texas.

Kerry, the front-runner by far, entered the debate with 686 delegates in The Associated Press count, compared to 206 for Edwards, with 2,162 needed to clinch the nomination.

The 10 states on next week’s ballot offer 1,151 delegates combined, including 236 in New York, 140 in Ohio and 370 in California, site of the debate.

Edwards told reporters in advance that the debate marked “an important opportunity for both” him and the front-runner, but said he was in the race “for the long haul.”

Looking to Tuesday clincher
Kerry hopes to lock up the nomination next Tuesday by driving Edwards from the race so he can devote his full energy and resources to combatting Bush.

Polls show the Massachusetts senator well ahead in California, Ohio and New York, with Edwards within single digits in Georgia. A new poll showed Kerry ahead only narrowly in Maryland, another Super Tuesday state.

Edwards hopes to defeat his rival in Georgia, Ohio and Minnesota, and gain a share of delegates in California and New York. His advisers argue that would be enough to let him survive to the following week, when four states in his native South hold contests.

However long the Democratic primary season lasts, Bush wasn’t waiting for it to end. At a fund-raiser in Kentucky, he said a Democrat in the White House would bring higher taxes while opposing “every idea that gives Americans more authority and more choices and more control over our own lives.” He added that a Democratic leader would create a nation “uncertain in the face of danger,” and be less than aggressive in battling global terrorism.

2 million jobs lost
The country had lost more than 2 million jobs since Bush took office, and while the economy is recovering, his stewardship is a key campaign issue.

Trade, in particular, has become a point of contention between Kerry and Edwards, both men maneuvering for position as the stronger, more reliable defender of U.S. workers whose jobs are threatened by companies moving factories offshore.

Kerry voted for the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement that many in the Midwest blame for the exodus of thousands of jobs. He now says he would demand changes by trading partners to protect U.S. workers.

Edwards was not in the Senate when NAFTA was up for a vote. Like Kerry, though, he voted for a liberalized trade agreement with China that has also been blamed for job losses.

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