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Democratic contenders debate in Wisconsin

to fight GOP attacks, while Kerry rivals Howard Dean and Sen. John Edwards faced pressure to concede the nomination to the Democratic front-runner.
Democratic Candidates Debate in Milwaukee
Presidential candidates Sen. John Kerry, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Sen. John Edwards, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and former Gov. Howard Dean stand together before the Democratic debate Sunday. Chris Hondros / Getty Images
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Sen. John Kerry pledged in Sunday's debate in Wisconsin -- perhaps the last for some of the five remaining Democrats aspiring to the nomination -- to combat Republican attacks, while Kerry rivals Howard Dean and Sen. John Edwards faced pressure to cede the nomination to the Democratic presidential front-runner.

“I’m ready for what they throw at me,” Kerry said of President Bush and his Republican allies. “I’m prepared to stand up to any attack they come at me with.”

At the debate at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Edwards resisted Kerry’s suggestion that the nomination was wrapped up.

“No so fast, John Kerry,” he said. “We’re going to have an election here in Wisconsin this Tuesday and we got a whole group of primaries coming up, and I, for one, intend to fight with everything I’ve got for every one of those votes.”

Kerry in front
More polite than pugilistic, Dean called Kerry “a fine person. And if he wins the nomination, I’m going to support him. But I intend to win the nomination.”

Kerry leads Dean, Edwards and two other Democrats in Wisconsin, where Democrats hold a critical primary Tuesday. The Massachusetts senator, victor in 14 of 16 contests, hopes to force his major foes from the race with another overwhelming victory.

Dean, whose own advisers are urging him to abandon the fight if he loses Tuesday, passed up a chance to repeat his criticism of Kerry for accepting special interest money. Instead, the fallen front-runner seemed to defend Kerry against criticism from the White House.

“I think George Bush has some nerve attacking anybody on special interests,” Dean said.

A focus on Bush
Edwards also focused on Bush, not Kerry. “Certainly, the integrity and character of the president of the United States is at issue,” he said. “No question.”

The 90-minute debate was sponsored by Journal Communications, WTMJ-TV and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

At stake Tuesday are Wisconsin’s 72 delegates, and much more: The state may be the last, best battleground for Kerry’s rivals.

A victory would give the Massachusetts senator 15 wins in 17 contests and more momentum for his dominating run. He hoped to force Dean and Edwards from the race.

A question of 'bowing out' Dean, the former Vermont governor, said he won’t heed calls from his own campaign to end the nomination fight should he lose Wisconsin.

“We are not bowing out,” he told The Associated Press.

But Dean campaign chairman Steve Grossman told The AP that with a loss Tuesday, Dean would seek to convert his grassroots network into a movement that helps expand the party and elect Kerry.

“When Howard Dean says he’s not going to quit, what he means is the battle to restore democracy and citizen participation is long-term and he’s not going to quit on that battle,” Grossman said.

Edwards, a rookie senator from North Carolina, is in a slightly better position to survive a defeat Tuesday.

While Dean is winless and running out of credibility, Edwards won his native South Carolina and has impressed Democrats with his polished, upbeat style.

After Wisconsin, March 2
After Wisconsin, the remaining candidates will focus on March 2 elections in California, New York, Ohio and seven other states. Edwards hopes Wisconsin voters will bounce Dean from the race, leaving him standing alone against Kerry.

The scenario presumes that Edwards would do well enough Tuesday to keep money flowing into his campaign, even as party donors and leaders rally behind Kerry.

He is relying on Kerry to stumble — with a major misstep, a scandal or a poor showing during a head-to-head race.

Republicans kept working on the assumption that Kerry would face Bush. GOP chairman Ed Gillespie accused Kerry of hypocrisy for voting in favor of Bush’s education and Iraq policies then railing against them as a candidate.

Kerry also backed Bush’s anti-terrorism package but now criticizes Attorney General John Ashcroft of using it to infringe on civil liberties. “I will change the Patriot Act,” he said Sunday.

Bush's veracity called into question
Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Rev. Al Sharpton both pointedly called Bush's veracity into question. "He lied to the American people," Kucinich said of the president and his efforts to build support for the war on terrorism.

Sharpton was no less sharp in his criticism of the administration. Fielding a question about what would motivate Bush to lie, Sharpton said, “Why do people lie? Because they're liars. Why he lied? I think we should give him the rest of his retirement to figure that out."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.