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Dems take Bush to task over proposed amendment

Clockwise from upper left, John Kerry, John Edwards, Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich partcipated in a CNN-Los Angeles Times debate Thursday.
Clockwise from upper left, John Kerry, John Edwards, Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich partcipated in a CNN-Los Angeles Times debate Thursday.

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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Democrats debating each other Thursday night accused President Bush of proposing a constitutional amendment against gay marriage to distract voters from more important issues such as the economy.

"He's trying to divide America," said Sen. John Kerry. "This is a president who always tries to create a cultural war and seek the lowest common denominator of American politics because he can't come to America and talk about jobs, he can't talk to America about health care because he doesn't have a plan."

Both Kerry and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said the amendment was a bad idea and said the question of gay and lesbian marriages should be left to the states to decide.

And while both Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and New York civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton believe gays should be able to marry, they also agreed that Bush picked the issue for political reasons.

"Bush is trying to go from race baiting with quotas in 2000 to gay baiting in 2004," said Sharpton. "The issue is not who you go to bed with, the issue is whether you have a job when you get up in the morning."

Jobs, the economy and trade issues were big issues in the debate.

When asked about his first action as president, Kucinich said he would cancel NAFTA and WTO.

"The World Trade Organization, as long as we belong to it, will not let us protect the jobs. This is the reason why we have outsourcing going on right now. We can't tax it. We can't put tariffs on it," the Ohio congressman said.

The 90-minute debate Thursday evening was held at the University of Southern California and was co-sponsored by CNN and The Los Angeles Times. It is one of two debates to be held before next week's Super Tuesday showdown, in which voters in 10 states will decide how the candidates will divide up a bonanza of 1,151 delegates. The second debate will take place in New York on Sunday.

Before the Los Angeles debate, the latest polls showed Democratic front-runner Kerry with strong leads over Edwards in the four largest states holding primaries March 2: California, New York, Ohio and Georgia.

In answering questions, Kerry repeatedly pointed out his extensive experience in the Senate and how he fought for issues he thinks are important.

Edwards, while acknowledging that Kerry has won most primaries, pointed out that if he won the nomination he would have greater appeal to Independent and Republican voters dissatisfied with business as usual in Washington.

But Sharpton said that winning the nomination was not the only reason to participate in the primaries and debates -- it was also to collect delegates.

"We will have delegates at the convention to shape the platform and hold whoever wins of the four accountable," Sharpton said. "That's why we are picking up delegates."

The flip-flop question

Kerry was asked how he would answer Bush's claim that the senator has flip-flopped on many issues.

"I'm not going to listen to President Bush suggest that I might have two positions on any issue when he has the wrong position on every issue," Kerry answered to great applause.

"In Iraq, there was a right way to do it and a wrong way, and he chose the wrong way. In No Child Left Behind, he abandoned it -- he's not funding it. With respect to trade, he doesn't enforce it."

CNN's Larry King, who acted as moderator, questioned Kerry about his stand against the death penalty especially in the case of a person who kills a 5-year-old.

"My instinct is to want to strangle that person with my own hands," Kerry said. "But we have 111 people who have been now released from death row ... because of DNA evidence that showed they didn't commit the crime of which they were convicted."

"Our system has made mistakes, and it's been applied in a way that I think is wrong," said Kerry, adding that the death penalty also compromised America's "civility" as a nation.

Edwards, a death penalty supporter, conceded that "serious steps" need to be take to improve the system so that innocent people aren't condemned to death. But he added: "I think there are some crimes that deserve the ultimate punishment."

He cited the case of James Byrd, a black man who was dragged to death in Texas.

The Democratic hopefuls all agreed that Bush's tax cuts need to be rolled back to help fund health care, education and Social Security.

Edwards said even more steps need to be taken.

"Second thing is we need to raise the capital gains rate for people who make over $300,000 a year. The very idea that in our country, people who make their money from investments are paying a lower tax rate than people who work for a living is wrong, and we need to put a stop to it," said the son of a mill worker.

Sharpton said he disagreed with Kerry and Edwards on certain issues, but he would vote for either if they won the nomination.

"I think on their worst days they're better than George Bush," said Sharpton. "Let's make a constitutional amendment against presidents that lie."

The latest Field Poll in California showed Kerry with a 40-point lead over Edwards in the Golden State. Surveys by the American Research Group put Kerry ahead of Edwards by 30 points in New York and 20 points in Ohio, while the margin of his lead in Georgia was eight points. (Full story)

Last week in Wisconsin, pre-election polls showed Edwards anywhere from 20 to 35 points behind Kerry. Kerry still won, but only by six points, as Edwards made a late charge.

Five other states will be holding primaries next Tuesday -- Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont. Minnesota will be holding caucuses. (CNN.com's interactive Election Calendar)

The American Research Group poll found Kucinich, the former mayor of Cleveland, with 11 percent support in his home state of Ohio

And while media pundits and political experts have been casting the race as a two-man showdown between Kerry and Edwards, the Kucinich campaign released a statement pointedly noting that he has now finished ahead of Edwards in Hawaii, Maine and Washington.

In Tuesday's Hawaii caucuses, Kucinich snagged 30 percent of the vote for a second-place finish, behind Kerry but far ahead of Edwards.


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