GREENVILLE, S.C. — Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said during last night’s Democratic presidential debate that the threat of terrorism has been exaggerated.
“I think there has been an exaggeration,” Mr. Kerry said when asked whether President Bush has overstated the threat of terrorism. “They are misleading all Americans in a profound way.”
The front-runner for the Democratic nomination said he would engage other nations in a more cooperative fashion to quell terrorism.
“This administration’s arrogant and ideological policy is taking America down a more dangerous path,” Mr. Kerry said. “I will make America safer than they are.”
All seven remaining Democratic White House hopefuls clashed on stage here last night for 90 minutes in the final debate before seven states, including South Carolina, hold primaries or caucuses Tuesday.
NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw moderated the debate, sponsored by the Young Democrats of Furman University and held in the university’s Peace Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Greenville.
Sen. John Edwards, who was born in this state and has said he must win here, took the first opportunity to disagree with Mr. Kerry, the victor in both the binding Democratic contests held so far — the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
“It’s just hard for me to see how you can say there’s an exaggeration when thousands of people lost their lives on September 11,” Mr. Edwards said.
But Mr. Edwards, who represents North Carolina in the Senate, added that while national security is important, Mr. Bush has ignored other pressing issues.
“The president of the United States actually has to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said.
Howard Dean, the former front-runner who is struggling to regain the edge in his campaign, criticized the Bush administration for the Patriot Act, which he said has gone too far toward eroding individual liberties.
“I think in some ways, unfortunately, the terrorists have already won,” he said.
Mr. Dean, a physician, also fired several broadsides at Mr. Kerry, livening up the debate.
“Senator Kerry is the front-runner, and I mean him no insult, but in 19 years in the Senate, Senator Kerry sponsored 11 bills dealing with health care, and not one of them passed,” the former governor of Vermont said. “If you want a president who will get results, I suggest that you look at somebody who did get results in my state.”
Replied Mr. Kerry: “One of the things that you need to know as president is how things work in Congress if you want to get things done.
“One of the things that happens in Congress is you can, in fact, write a bill. But if you’re smart about it, you can get it on someone else’s bill that doesn’t carry your name,” he said.
Mr. Dean said testimony and interviews within the past week from weapons inspector David Kay prove that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. He also said Vice President Dick Cheney met with CIA intelligence gatherers and trumped up the intelligence to force the country to war.
“We now know that Vice President Cheney sat down with top CIA officials and berated them because he didn’t like their intelligence reports; that is the kind of thing I expected and why I opposed the war,” Mr. Dean said.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut was the only candidate who supported the war in Iraq, and credited the U.S. victory with breakthroughs on the diplomatic front.
“I seriously doubt Libya would have given up its weapons of mass destruction program if not for this war, and it is a shame that the questions about the intelligence have unfortunately given a bad name to a good war,” Mr. Lieberman said.
The North American Free Trade Agreement received attention from the candidates, with Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio denouncing the pact outright, while others stated that they wanted to amend the program to focus on workers’ rights.
The Rev. Al Sharpton of New York won the loudest applause of the night when he denounced Greenville for not celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday as a holiday and the state for flying the Confederate flag.
“There is no place for the Confederate flag in America. You can’t change what it represents: slavery, raping and the evil of racism,” Mr. Sharpton said.
Mr. Kucinich added that he was not staying in South Carolina last night out of respect for a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People boycott of the state over the flag, which flies at a Confederate memorial in front of the Statehouse in Columbia, after having been taken down from atop the state Capitol.
Mr. Kucinich and Mr. Sharpton, the most liberal of the remaining candidates, both said they support a government-run health-care system with no role for profits.
Wesley Clark of Arkansas said he does not support a start-from-scratch health care plan, as backed by many of the other candidates.
“I would not start all over. We have to make this system work,” Mr. Clark said.
Mr. Kerry looked to secure a foothold in the South with an endorsement from another high-ranking Democrat going into last night’s debate.
Rep. James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, endorsed Mr. Kerry yesterday, saying that Mr. Kerry could end the “three straight years of job losses.” Mr. Kerry touted his plan to eliminate tax provisions that allow businesses to move jobs overseas and instead reward those that employ Americans.
“John Kerry has a vision to get South Carolinians back to work,” said Mr. Clyburn, the state’s highest-ranking black elected official.
Mr. Clyburn initially backed Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, but the Missouri Democrat dropped out of the race after placing a disappointing fourth in the Iowa caucuses.
There has been chatter about a presidential ticket of Mr. Edwards and Mr. Kerry — although supporters of each man led with his preferred candidate at the head of the ticket.
“I’d like to see a Kerry-Edwards combo; I think it could be good,” said Robert Martineau, 72, a supporter of Mr. Kerry.
The Greenville transplant from Vermont said he thought the only way to beat Mr. Bush in the South was to have Mr. Edwards win support below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Maryland, who endorsed Mr. Edwards, said he, too, thought it was an excellent idea.
“I have heard that all over the place, down here and in Washington, and I think we do need an Edwards-Kerry campaign to win the South. That is exactly what we need to win,” Mr. Wynn said.
Polls show that Mr. Clark, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards are the leading candidates in South Carolina in the week before Tuesday’s primary. In two polls this week, Mr. Edwards gained ground while the other candidates lost support among likely voters.
Charles Hurt contributed to this report from Washington.