Presidential Candidates Debate in Los Angeles
Armando Arorizo  /  Zuma Press
Sens. John Edwards, left, and John Kerry at Sunday's debate.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/29/2004 6:16:17 PM ET 2004-02-29T23:16:17

Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards and two other Democratic candidates for president tangled in a rollicking, testy debate Sunday, 48 hours before the pivotal day of voting in 10 states known as "Super Tuesday."

Citing a Sunday story in the Washington Post, Edwards, who is No. 2 in the race for delegates, said new programs pushed by front-runner Kerry would cost at least $165 billion more during his first term in office than he could save with his tax plan. "This is the same old Washington talk that people have been listening to for years," Edwards said near the start of the hourlong debate being broadcast by CBS.

An angry Kerry was quick to respond: "I think John would have learned by now not to believe everything he reads in the newspaper. He should do his homework because not everything printed in the Washington Post is accurate."

The two were joined at the debate table by Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who expressed frustration that moderator Dan Rather and other questioners were focusing on the two leading candidates.

"Your attempt to do this is blatant and I'm going to call you out on it," Sharpton told Rather at one point. "I want us to be able to respond."

Replied Rather: "I think you will agree the voters have spoken," referring to the fact that Sharpton and Kucinich have each won fewer than 20 delegates while Kerry has amassed 696 and Edwards has 206.

Kerry hoped the debate would set the stage for a sweep in all 10 Super Tuesday states. Some 1,151 delegates are at stake in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont. Kerry has dominated the Democratic race with wins in 18 of the first 20 contests. Winning the nomination requires 2,162 delegates.

Leading the polls
The Massachusetts senator leads in polls everywhere, by substantial margins in some, and has picked up endorsements from two influential Democrats in New York — former Governor Mario Cuomo and his son, Andrew Cuomo, a former Housing secretary.

On another topic in Sunday's debate, Edwards said the United States should be part of a U.N. force to secure Haiti and accused President Bush of neglecting the Caribbean nation as it spiraled into chaos.

“He’s late, as usual,” agreed Kerry.

The candidates debated hours after Haiti’s embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide resigned and flew into exile.

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Bush has “ignored Haiti as much in the same way he’s ignored much of the countries in this hemisphere,” said Edwards, a freshman senator from North Carolina. “The proper thing to do is for America to be part of a U.N. force to secure the country,” he said.

Edwards hopes to score multiple victories Tuesday and keep his candidacy alive until March 9, when four Southern states hold primaries and caucuses. A sweep that week would set the stage for a showdown March 16 in Illinois.

Edwards dismissed talk that he was eyeing a vice presidential slot — “Oh, no! Far from it” — and took on Kerry in tougher-than-ever terms.

Questioning Kerry’s free-trade record, Edwards dismissed the front-runner’s plan to review all trade agreements once he takes office. “The fundamental issue in this election is whether the people of this country believe that we’re going to get change that originates in Washington or change that has to come from out there in the real world.”

Kerry fired back, noting that Edwards himself serves in Congress. “That seems to me to be Washington, D.C.”

Video: 'Super Tuesday' looms

Both reiterated their opposition to gay marriage, though they support legal rights for gays under civil unions.

“I’ve been to the wedding of somebody who has gotten married who’s gay,” Kerry said.

Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said he attended the commitment ceremony of Rufus Gifford and Russell Bennett two summers ago on Nantucket. Gifford is the son of Chad Gifford, Kerry’s longtime friend and chairman and chief executive of FleetBoston Financial Corp.

Meanwhile, Edwards is hoping to capitalize on the backing of supporters of former candidate Howard Dean. He made a conference call Saturday to former organizers for Dean in 10 states to enlist their help. Dean, the former Vermont governor, once the presumed front-runner, bowed out of the race winless after a disappointing third-place finish in the Wisconsin primary 1½ weeks ago.

And Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said Sunday that it was important that a nominee be tapped in short order so the national party can begin running ads to counter a massive Republican effort slated to begin next week.

“Clearly we need, at some point in the near future, we need to have a nominee of the Democratic Party because as you read in the newspaper the Bush-Cheney campaign is going up March 4 with a massive media buy,” McAuliffe said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“I’m not allowed as the national party to begin to do our media until we have a nominee. So until that happens we will not be up on the air,” he said.

“By the morning of March 10 ... 71 percent of the pledged delegates will have been chosen and probably 80 percent of the super delegates,” McAuliffe said. “We are very close to having a nominee of the Democratic Party,” he added, but he mentioned no one by name.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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