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Inside Politics

Dems spar -- gently -- over electability, gay marriage, Iraq

From left, debate moderator Larry King with Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton, John Edwards and John Kerry.
From left, debate moderator Larry King with Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton, John Edwards and John Kerry.

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During debate, Sen. John Kerry assails President Bush on gay marriage, Iraq ...
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... Sen. John Edwards says gay marriage is a state issue ...
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... Rep. Dennis Kucinich says he would, as president, cancel NAFTA ...
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... and the Rev. Al Sharpton criticizes Ralph Nader's run for the White House.
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CNN's Frank Buckley on the debate and its potential impact.
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Sunday, February 29: Puerto Rico Republican primary

"Super Tuesday," March 2: Primaries in California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, Georgia; caucuses in Minnesota

When is your primary? For more key dates in the 2004 election season, see our special America Votes 2004 Election Calendar
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Heading toward next week's Super Tuesday showdown, Sen. John Edwards tried to open a little political daylight between himself and Democratic front-runner Sen. John Kerry in a debate Thursday night.

Edwards touted himself as a more electable Washington outsider better able to change the country's direction and stand up to special interests.

"We come from different places, and we present different choices," Edwards, of North Carolina, said. "Do you believe that change is more likely to be brought about by someone who has spent 20 years in Washington, or by someone who's more of an outsider to this process?"

Responding to Edwards' populist pitch and son-of-a-mill-worker biography, the blue-blooded Kerry retorted that he, too, had the background to be an agent of change, from his service in Vietnam and more than 20 years in political office.

"I believe that my 35 years of experience fighting against powerful forces in this country that don't want to do things for the very people John is talking about, and leading and fighting in international affairs, national security, military affairs, is critical to what this country needs today," the Massachusetts senator said.

Kerry and Edwards, along with long-shot candidates Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton, debated for 90 minutes Thursday night at the University of Southern California, an event co-sponsored by CNN and the Los Angeles Times. The candidates will debate again on Sunday, in New York.

Kerry pressed on death penalty

At Thursday night's debate, there were few fireworks between the two leading candidates, with Edwards sticking to his vow not to go negative and Kerry trying to look presidential above the fray.

But under questioning from panelists, they were forced to wade into the controversy over gay and lesbian marriage, and Kerry was pressed about his views on the death penalty, which he opposes except in cases of terrorism.

Moderator Larry King asked Kerry if a person who kills a 5-year-old should live.

"My instinct is to want to strangle that person with my own hands," he 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 taken to improve the system so that innocent people aren't condemned to death. But he said, "I think there are some crimes that deserve the ultimate punishment."

All oppose constitutional ban on gay marriages

The debate came just two days after President Bush announced his support for a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, but leaving the door open for states to consider civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.

All four of the candidates said they were opposed to the amendment, and they accused Bush of using it to distract voters from his record.

"The issue is not who you go to bed with. The issue is whether either of you have a job when you get up in the morning," joked Sharpton, a civil rights activist from New York.

But both Kerry and Edwards, who say they are opposed to same-sex marriage but open to civil unions, were clearly trying to carefully step through the political minefield the issue presents.

Kerry was asked to explain why, given his opposition to same-sex marriage, he voted against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which withheld federal recognition of gay and lesbian marriages.

"There was no issue in front of the country when that was put before the United States Senate," he said. "I went to the floor of the Senate and said ... 'I will not take part in gay bashing.'"

At the time, Kerry also said he thought the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional because it violated the "full faith and credit" clause that requires states to recognize each other's laws -- one of the arguments Bush made Tuesday for why a constitutional amendment was needed.

But Thursday, Kerry said he believes his views on the law's constitutionality were "incorrect" in 1996 and that he now thinks "no state has to recognize something that is against their public policy."

Edwards was not in the Senate when the Defense of Marriage Act was passed, but he said Thursday he would not have voted for it.

"[It] specifically said that the federal government is not required to recognize gay marriage, even if a state chooses to do so," he said. "I disagree with that. I think states should be allowed to make that decision."

Both Edwards and Kerry were also forced to defend their votes in favor of President Bush's Iraq war resolution, in the wake of their current criticism of his handling of the conflict.

"What we did is we voted on a resolution. It is for the president of the United States to determine how to conduct the war. That's his responsibility," Edwards said. "What this comes down to is this president has failed in his responsibility."

Pressed repeatedly on whether he regretted voting for the war, Edwards would only say, "I did what I believed was right at the time."

Kerry was less circumspect.

"No, I do not regret my vote," he said. "I regret that we have a president of the United States who misled America and broke every promise he made to the United States Congress."

The issue of drawing independents

Perhaps the most pointed disagreement of the night came when Edwards said he has been able to attract more independent voters than Kerry during the primary season, arguing that appeal to non-Democratic voters was crucial to beat Bush in the fall.

"There's nothing -- nothing -- in the returns [from] ... primaries and caucuses so far that documents what John Edwards just said," Kerry replied, adding that he thinks he can appeal to voters in Edwards' native South.

"I've been a prosecutor. I've sent people to jail for the rest of their life. They care about law and order in the South. I'm a gun owner and hunter, though I've never contemplated going hunting with an AK-47. And I believe I can speak to that culture. I'm a veteran. I've served in a war. They care about that," he said.

Next week, the four remaining candidates will face off in contests in 10 states, including California, with a bonanza of 1,151 delegates up for grabs. Super Tuesday will be a pivotal test of whether Edwards can make himself a credible alternative to Kerry, now that the contest has boiled down to two major candidates.

Before the debate, the latest polls showed Kerry with strong leads over Edwards in the four largest states holding primaries Tuesday: California, New York, Ohio and Georgia.

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)

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

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.

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