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Inside Politics

Kerry: 'I'm ready for what they throw at me'

Top aide says Dean weighing options

John Kerry leaves with wife Teresa Heinz Kerry after the Democrats' debate Sunday night at Marquette University.
John Kerry leaves with wife Teresa Heinz Kerry after the Democrats' debate Sunday night at Marquette University.

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(CNN) -- Democratic front-runner Sen. John Kerry said at a presidential debate Sunday evening in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that he realized he was now a target of President Bush and his supporters but that "I'm ready for what they throw at me."

Kerry heads into Tuesday's primary in Wisconsin with a lead in the polls and 14 victories in 16 state nominating contests. His two latest wins came Saturday in caucuses in Nevada and Washington, D.C. (Full story)

Meanwhile, Kerry's closest rivals, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, were under pressure to leave the field to the four-term senator from Massachusetts.

Dean, who has won none of the nominating contests so far, continued to send mixed messages about whether he would he drop out after Tuesday.

Two weeks ago, Dean told supporters in a fund-raising e-mail that he would drop out if he did not win in Wisconsin, but he later backed off that statement and said Sunday that "we're going to keep going, one way or the other."

A senior campaign official said Dean is considering several options if he drops out, including setting up a grass-roots organization and working with his supporters to continue influencing the debate. (Full story)

Both Dean and Edwards held off from attacking Kerry during the 90-minute debate at Marquette University, which was sponsored by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and WTMJ-TV. Indeed, for the most part the debate was good-natured and polite.

Dean even seemed to defend Kerry when asked about a 30-second Internet video ad released last week by the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign that called Kerry "unprincipled" and accused him of being "brought to you by the special interests."

"I think George Bush has some nerve attacking anybody on special interests," Dean said, even though Dean himself has leveled similar criticism at Kerry.

Kerry was asked whether the rhetoric from Bush supporters had already become too personal.

"They are resorting to that already because they don't want to talk about jobs, because they can't," Kerry said, citing other issues as well, such as health care, the environment, international security and the global AIDS crisis.

"If all they do is resort to the personal, I think the American people will see through it very, very quickly," Kerry said.

Edwards seemed a little miffed by Kerry's references to beating Bush.

"Not so fast, John Kerry," Edwards said. "We're going to have an election here in Wisconsin this Tuesday. And we've 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."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York also took part in the debate. Neither have won a nominating contest so far.

Sharpton added some levity when he was asked what he would do about balancing the budget.

"Governor Dean says he's the only one up here who's balanced a budget," Sharpton said. "I'm the only one in here that all my life had to deal with deficit spending. I was born in a deficit."

Kerry took the opportunity to question Bush's war leadership when he was asked about the White House's release of the president's military records from his service in the Texas Air National Guard in the Vietnam War era.

"That's not something that I'm qualified to comment on," Kerry said. "I would say that this president regrettably has perhaps not learned some of the lessons of that period. ...

"And one of those key lessons is how you take a nation to war. I think this president rushed to war. I don't believe he has a plan for winning the peace. ...

"And most importantly," Kerry continued, "I think he's cut the VA budget and not kept faith with veterans across this country. And one of the first definitions of patriotism is keeping the faith with those who wore the uniform of our country. I will do that."

The Kerry campaign -- which has repeatedly denied the special interest allegations from the Bush camp -- struck back not only with a point-for-point response but also with its own Internet video, released Saturday.

"Who's the politician who's taken more special interest money than anyone in history? The same one who's attacking John Kerry's record because he can't defend his own," the video says.

Kerry repeatedly has said he has taken less money from political action committees than nearly every other senator.

He said he tops a list of contributions from individual lobbyists because his overall funds are so much higher than most other senators. No lobbyist ever received a political favor in return, he said.

At stake in Wisconsin are 72 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July. So far, Kerry has captured 577 delegates; Dean has 188 delegates; Edwards, 166; Sharpton, 16; and Kucinich, 2. To win the nomination, a candidate needs 2,161 delegates. (Delegate scorecard)

The next big test after Wisconsin is March 2, "Super Tuesday," when 10 states choose delegates. (Interactive election calendar)

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