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Democrats scramble for Tuesday votes

<font size="2" color="#0080ff">Following a televised debate Thursday night among Democrats vying for the presidency,  a new poll showed Sen. John Kerry solidifying support in several states.</font></p>
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Following their televised debate Thursday night, the Democratic presidential contenders continued campaigning Friday, many heading to a forum with working families in South Carolina, where a new poll showed Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards in a dead heat.

Kerry held big, double-digit leads in two other states also holding primaries Tuesday, Missouri and Arizona, and trailed Wesley Clark by eight points in Oklahoma, the other state tracked by the MSNBC, Reuters, Zogby poll.

Howard Dean, the one-time front-runner whose high-flying campaign has plummeted, was in third place in Arizona, Missouri and South Carolina and fourth place in Oklahoma. Arizona was the only state where Dean registered double-digit support.

Dean, his campaign reeling after back-to-back losses in Iowa and New Hampshire and running low on cash, acknowledged Thursday he’s unlikely to win anywhere on Tuesday.

At Thursday's debate, Kerry, of Massachusetts, declared that he was the candidate best suited to carry the Southern states necessary for a Democrat to win the presidency, underscoring the importance of South Carolina in next week’s round of presidential primaries.

The debate was moderated by NBC’s Tom Brokaw.

The primary in South Carolina, which has been battered by manufacturing job losses and boasts a large black population, will be one of the biggest tests Tuesday as the first indicator of Southern sentiment. Said Edwards, a senator from North Carolina who has acknowledged that he must do well in his neighboring state, voters have “never elected a Democratic president without winning at least five Southern states.”

Kerry was in the  spotlight after he shot to the front of the pack earlier this week with an impressive win in New Hampshire. At the very beginning, he faced a question from Brow about whether he could compete in the South, the home to two of his chief rivals, Edwards, who was born in South Carolina, and retired Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas.

“I’ve always said I will compete in the South,” Kerry said. “I’ve always said I will win in the South.”

Kerry won a big boost Thursday with the in South Carolina of influential Rep. Jim Clyburn, the only black congressman in a state where more than 40 percent of Tuesday’s voters could be African-American.

But Edwards said, “This is a place where I believe I can and should win.”

“This is a two-man race,” former state Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian told The State newspaper of Columbia. “It’s Kerry and Edwards.”

Dean, he told the newspaper, is “toast.”

Dean, however, said Thursday night that he expected to start winning next Tuesday. So did Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who added wryly, “Candidates who run for president are very optimistic people.”

Target: BushDean, who replaced his campaign manager Wednesday after losing the New Hampshire primary, questioned why so much attention was being paid to the internal workings of his staff rather than the best way for Democrats to defeat Bush.

It was Bush who gave the candidates the focus of their sharpest attacks, as they uniformly scored the president for his handling of what he calls the war on terrorism and the military campaign in Iraq.

Clark said the Bush White House had bungled the postwar administration of Iraq. Referring to L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, Clark said flatly that “we need to pull Bremer out.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton accused Bush of deliberately misleading the American people in the buildup to war. Bush initially used the terrorist threat from Baghdad as a pretext to invade Iraq, he said, but then changed his reasoning once it became apparent that inspectors were unlikely to find evidence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

“We cannot allow him to just change this now and say Hussein was a bad guy,” Sharpton said. “Lying to the American people is not the way to run a country, and George Bush should be removed for that.”

Kerry picked up on that thread, saying he, too, thought Bush had indulged in “clear misleading, clear exaggeration” on the terrorist threat from Iraq, noting that the allies’ contentions that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes and had nuclear weapons had been found groundless.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, whose campaign has been based on an anti-war stance, said the United States should get out of Iraq altogether and give up “control of the oil, control of the contracts, control of ambitions to privatize Iraq, gives up to the United Nations all that on an interim basis to be handled on behalf of the Iraqi people until the Iraqi people are self-governing.”

“When the U.N. agrees with that, at that point, we ask U.N. peacekeepers to come in and rotate our troops out,” he said.

Edwards said the United States’ allies in the Middle East had failed to adequately support Washington after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, saying there was “a complete disconnect” between the policies of governments in the region and the sentiments of everyday people on the street.

“There's a lot the president’s not doing, about jobs lost, about a health-care crisis in this country,” he said. “The president of the United States has to actually be able to walk and chew chewing gum at the same time, has to be able to do two things at the same time.”

Dean, whose most prominent endorsement came from former Vice President Al Gore, an architect of the North American Free Trade Agreement, called for significant changes in the treaty, saying it had benefited corporations without taking workers into account.

“We ought to change NAFTA. We've only done half the job with globalization. You've globalized the rights of big corporations to do business anywhere in the country, but what we now need to do is globalize the rights of workers, labor unions, environmentalists and human rights,” he said.

“If you do that, you raise the standard of living in other countries. And what happens is our jobs stop going away because the cost of production goes up.”

Lieberman was virtually alone in defending NAFTA, saying that while it had “cost some jobs, has actually netted out 900,000 new jobs that were created by NAFTA.”

“Now, the jobs that are leaving South Carolina, very few of them are going to Mexico and Canada. They're going to Asia,” he said. “And there the Bush administration hasn’t had the guts to stand up to China and other countries there, who are ripping off patents and copyrights of ours, who are fixing their currency in a way that gives them a price advantage and causes jobs here to be bled out the country.”

But Kucinich drew one of the loudest rounds of the applause of the night when he said, “M

Lieberman said an overhaul of the health care system was “probably the singular largest undone work of the Clinton administration that they wanted to do.”

Lieberman proposed the creation of a new program called “Medikids,” which would cover the insurance costs of treatment for children.

Dean, a medical doctor, cited his experience as a state governor and said the nation needed a president who had “executive experience in governing, particularly in health care, particularly somebody who is a doctor who understands these things, who is willing to get stuff done.”

Dean took a swipe at Kerry, saying that of 11 bills he had introduced in the Senate on health care, "not one of them passed,” adding, “I don't think we are going to do that getting somebody from the United States Senate to be the Democratic nominee.”

But Kerry cast himself as a leading defender of patients’ rights in Congress, saying Dean failed to understand that legislating in the Senate was a collaborative process in which he had played a big role. He claimed credit for helping pass legislation to ensure treatment for AIDS patients and military veterans suffering from exposure to Agent Orange.

“I think that it’s time to recognize that we got a lot done on health care,” Kerry said. “And when I’m president of the United States, I will complete the mission of Harry Truman, and all Americans will have health care in this country.”