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Democrats shrug off Nader candidacy

Senator Edwards Woos Voters In Ohio
A beaming John Edwards greets supporters Sunday in Rochester, N.Y.Shaun Heasley / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Shrugging off Ralph Nader’s entry into the 2004 presidential race as an independent, Democratic presidential candidates John Kerry and John Edwards on Monday were keeping their eyes firmly focused on the potentially decisive “Super Tuesday” contests in 10 states on March 2.

Kerry, the Massachusetts senator who is the front-runner for the nomination, is hoping to deliver a knockout blow to Edwards in the delegate-rich Super Tuesday contests. But while campaigning furiously to protect his lead, Kerry also is facing increasing pressure from President Bush’s re-election team.

On Monday, Kerry said Democrats had Bush “on the run” and had forced the president to start his re-election campaign even before he knew who his opponent would be.

In a kind of pre-emptive strike, the Democratic front-runner criticized in advance a speech Bush plans to give Monday night to the Republican Governors Association. It will lay out many of the themes to be debated over the next eight months.

“Tonight George Bush ... is going to stand up and lay out his vision for the country,” Kerry told a rally at Harlem’s Alhambra Ballroom. “And I think it’s interesting that we have George Bush on the run because he has to go out and start this campaign officially tonight before we even have a nominee of the Democratic party.”

Edwards, meanwhile, emphasized his Southern mill-worker background before a New York labor audience Monday, telling garment workers who have lost their jobs to overseas factories that “I take this personally.”

“Your country needs to be there for you. It’s no more complicated than that,” Edwards told a laid-off worker at the Unite union’s New York headquarters. The North Carolina senator cited his own family’s hard times when the North Carolina textile mill where his father worked was shut down.

Edwards promoted an economic program he has said would help restore lost American jobs. He also sought to pick up former supporters of Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and would-be supporters of Ralph Nader.

Edwards told reporters that those who supported Nader four years ago should vote for Edwards now. “A lot of those voters would find me appealing,” he said.

He said both he and Nader, who announced on Sunday an independent bid for the presidency, were high on “consumer issues” and “fighting for the little guy.”

Edwards focuses on states hit by job losses

Edwards, a North Carolina senator whose sole primary win was on Feb. 3 in his birth state of South Carolina, is focusing on California, New York, Ohio, Georgia, Maryland and Minnesota, hit hard by job losses under Bush.

Edwards got a boost on Sunday with the endorsement of the Fresno Bee newspaper in California, which he will visit for three days next week.

Edwards hopes to win enough states on Super Tuesday to stay in the race and compete in a string of Southern states the following week.

“We have to be able to win some Southern states in order to be successful,” Edwards said. Georgia votes on March 2, and the next Tuesday there will be contests in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

Nader announces White House bid
Meanwhile, both Democratic presidential contenders said they were not worried that a would hurt them if they face Bush in November.

"I think my campaign is speaking to a lot of the issues Ralph Nader is concerned about," Kerry said.

Edwards said "it will not impact my campaign" because he could attract many of the voters who might otherwise go to Nader.

Other Democrats took a much dimmer view of Nader's entry.

“It’s an act of total ego,” said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said, “The fact is that if Ralph Nader runs, President Bush is going to be re-elected, and if Ralph Nader doesn’t run, President Bush is going to be re-elected.

Kerry, who has won 15 of the 17 states that have so far voted in primaries or caucuses, has come under increasing pressure from the Bush re-election campaign in recent days.

On Sunday, that attention manifested itself in a public dispute between Kerry and Republicans over his voting record on defense issues.

Responding Sunday to a letter in which Kerry accused Bush of using surrogates to attack his military service in Vietnam and his subsequent opposition to the war, Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign chairman Marc Racicot told Kerry that the campaign “does not condone” any effort to impugn his patriotism but considers his voting record on national security and defense issues as a valid target of political scrutiny.

“I ask you to elevate the remarkably negative tone of your campaign and your party over the past year,” Racicot said.

Kerry had taken umbrage at statements that Sen. Saxby Chambliss made earlier, predicting trouble for the Massachusetts Democrat in Georgia’s primary because of a “32-year history of voting to cut defense programs and cut defense systems.”

In the letter to Bush on Saturday, Kerry wrote: “As you well know, Vietnam was a very difficult and painful period in our nation’s history, and the struggle for our veterans continues. So, it has been hard to believe that you would choose to reopen these wounds for your personal political gain. But, that is what you have chosen to do.”

“Saxby Chambliss, on the part of the president and his henchmen, decided today to question my commitment to the defense of our nation,” Kerry said while campaigning in Georgia.

Kerry defends defense votes
Kerry told a news conference he voted for the largest defense and intelligence budgets in American history, although sometimes he “voted for common sense to make changes.”

In his reply letter Sunday, Racicot said, “Our campaign does not condone any effort to impugn your patriotism. Your letter claims that supporters of our campaign questioned your service and patriotism. In fact, that simply wasn’t the case.”

“Our campaign is not questioning your patriotism or military service, but your votes and statements on issues now facing our country,” said Racicot, former governor of Montana. “Senator Chambliss addressed your Senate record of voting against the weapons systems that are winning the war on terror.”

Countered Kerry spokesman David Wade: “The Republicans need to answer to the American people for their craven tactics that degrade our democracy and question the patriotism of those who stand up and ask questions about the direction of our country. ... John Kerry takes a back seat to no one when it comes to maintaining the strongest military on the face of the earth and keeping our promises to America’s veterans.”