- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2004

MILWAUKEE — Sen. John Kerry, who has voted for many of President Bush’s signature policies, defended those votes at a Democratic presidential candidate debate last night, but said Mr. Bush hasn’t followed through on what he promised.

“The problem with the Patriot Act is two words: John Ashcroft,” said Mr. Kerry, defending his vote for the antiterrorism law Congress passed after the September 11 attacks.

In the debate among the five remaining candidates for the Democratic nomination, Mr. Kerry also defended his support for free-trade agreements. He said what’s cost jobs is the Bush administration’s failure to use side agreements to force other nations to meet higher labor and environmental standards.

“We have things that we can do,” he said. “This administration refuses to do them. I regret the way they haven’t been enforced.” Given his status as party front-runner, Mr. Kerry and his nearly 20-year record in the Senate received the most attention.

Other candidates, particularly former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, have said Mr. Kerry doesn’t offer much of a choice when compared with Mr. Bush.

“My greatest fear in October is the president is going to say, ‘You supported me on the Patriot Act, you supported me on “No Child Left Behind,” you supported me on the war. Why don’t you just support me for president?’” Mr. Dean said Saturday while campaigning in Wisconsin.

Mr. Kerry gave his longest defense of the night when asked whether he bore responsibility for the war in Iraq and the loss of U.S. troops because he voted to authorize Mr. Bush to use force in Iraq.

After first explaining his own service in the military in Vietnam, Mr. Kerry then said the problem with Iraq wasn’t the policy Congress passed, it was Mr. Bush.

“My regret is not the vote — it was appropriate to stand up to Saddam Hussein,” he said of his support for using force in Iraq. “There was a right way to do it, a wrong way to do it. My regret is this president chose the wrong way, rushed to war.”

“That’s the longest answer I ever heard to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question,” responded Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who also voted to authorize force. “We all accept responsibility for what we did. I did what I believed was right. I took it very, very seriously.”

The debate was the last chance before tomorrow’s primary here in Wisconsin for Mr. Edwards and Mr. Dean to try to catch Mr. Kerry, who is running away with the nomination contests.

They have quite a bit of ground to make up.

Polls have shown Mr. Kerry leading the field with the support of more than half of Democratic voters. Mr. Kerry also has won 14 of the 16 binding caucuses or primaries held.

And Mr. Dean passed up several opportunities to attack Mr. Kerry, particularly on his ties to special interests, something Mr. Dean had been harshly critical of in past weeks. For his part, Mr. Edwards only drew basic distinctions between himself and Mr. Kerry on trade.

Yesterday’s debate could be the final one of the primary season. Though both Mr. Dean and Mr. Edwards have promised to soldier on past tomorrow’s primary, their campaigns will be seriously hurt if they don’t win.

Steve Grossman, Dean campaign chairman, told the Associated Press yesterday that if the former governor doesn’t win tomorrow, then Mr. Dean will examine how best he can help convert his campaign followers to supporters of the eventual Democratic nominee.

“I have no doubt he’ll support the nominee in any way he can, no matter who the nominee is, and obviously that nominee looks to be John Kerry,” Mr. Grossman said. “He may say that Tuesday night. He may wait until Wednesday or Thursday to say that.” But when Mr. Kerry at one point answered a question saying “when I’m president,” it was too much for Mr. Edwards.

“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.”

Mr. Kerry was demure when asked whether he agreed with charges that Mr. Bush was AWOL from his National Guard service, saying it was “not something that I’m qualified to comment on.” But he said he has asked some of his advocates not to pursue that criticism.

Mr. Kerry also couldn’t give a definitive answer when asked whether he would support a law banning homosexual “marriages.” “It depends on the terminology,” he said, adding that the word “marriage” shouldn’t be used to cloud the debate on civil unions.

“My personal opinion has been, is today, that marriage is between a man and a woman. I’m for civil unions, I’m for partners’ rights,” he said.

As usual, some of the best lines came from the two candidates who have little chance of winning either in Wisconsin or overall: the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio.

Mr. Sharpton claimed to be the most knowledgeable about how to handle the deficit given his family upbringing, saying, “I’m the only one in here that all my life had to deal with deficit spending — I was born in a deficit.” Asked whether the president knowingly lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Mr. Sharpton said he’s not sure what’s worse: “I think that if he did know he was lying and was lying, that’s even worse. Clearly, he lied. Now if he is an unconscious liar, and doesn’t realize when he’s lying, then we’re really in trouble,” he said.

And Mr. Kucinich blasted Mr. Bush’s economic policies, saying with the tax cuts, the cost of the war and a deficit, “What this administration is saying is, ‘Let them eat war.’”

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