- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

Sen. John Kerry yesterday ridiculed the notion that he is the most liberal U.S. senator, a ranking the National Journal bestowed last week upon the Massachusetts Democrat, who has not been shy about using labels himself.

“Labels are so silly in American politics,” said Mr. Kerry, who also declined to say whether he considered himself a liberal. “I think it’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.”

In a debate in New York yesterday among the four remaining candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, Mr. Kerry took issue with the Washington-based policy magazine, which called him the “No. 1 Senate liberal” based on his votes in 2003.

Mr. Kerry said labels like that don’t tell the whole story.

“I fought to put 100,000 police officers in the streets of America. Am I a conservative?” the senator asked, before questioning whether President Bush qualifies as a conservative.

“Is this president a legitimate Republican or conservative? Because there’s nothing conservative about driving deficits up as far as the eye can see. There’s nothing conservative about trampling on the line of division between church and state in America,” he said. “This administration is extreme, and I believe we’re offering America mainstream, American values.”

Yesterday’s debate was not the first time Mr. Kerry has labeled the Bush administration or activist groups as conservative, radical and right-wing.

“This is not a conservative Republican administration,” Mr. Kerry said while campaigning Feb. 17. “This is an extreme, radical administration. And we need to replace them with common sense and with fundamental, American values.”

He has also used phrases such as “right-wing extremism” to describe the National Rifle Association and has called Mr. Bush’s judicial nominations “red meat for the right wing.”

During the debate, Mr. Kerry was joined by Sen. John Edwards in attacking Mr. Bush for his handling of everything from Haiti to a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Both Mr. Kerry and the North Carolina senator said they don’t believe in calling homosexual unions “marriages,” but said beyond that, they believe homosexual couples should have every right that married couples have.

“I just happen to have a different opinion about what you call it,” Mr. Kerry said.

The debate came two days before the Super Tuesday primaries in 10 states, including Maryland, and the major national prizes of New York, California and Ohio. Mr. Kerry has won 18 of the 20 binding primaries and caucuses so far, and although he can’t mathematically sew up the nomination tomorrow, he can effectively put it out of reach of other candidates.

Mr. Edwards renewed his attack on Mr. Kerry’s trade record, saying his promise to review all U.S. trade agreements rings hollow because of his past support for those pacts. Mr. Edwards said it shouldn’t take a review.

“We know what’s wrong with these trade agreements. They need to be changed. The president of the United States needs to be willing to change them,” he said.

On Haiti, neither Mr. Kerry nor Mr. Edwards said they wished President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was still in power, nor did they disagree with Mr. Bush’s plan to send 500 U.S. troops as part of an international force.

But they both attacked the president on the issue, with Mr. Kerry saying Mr. Bush in fact caused the problem in Haiti.

“He’s late, as usual. This president always makes decisions late, after things have happened,” Mr. Kerry said. “I never would have allowed it to get out of control the way it did. This administration empowered the insurgents.”

The hour-long debate was a messy affair during which candidates at the table often took shots at the three other panelists over how time was allotted.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, in particular, was angered when he thought he was being cut out of the discussion on trade by New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller.

“I think that your attempt to do this is blatant, and I’m going to call you out on it, because I’m not going to sit here and be window dressing,” he said.

“Well, I’m not going to be addressed like this,” Miss Bumiller responded.

CBS News anchorman and debate moderator Dan Rather then implied that the exchange between Mr. Edwards and Mr. Kerry was most important, telling Mr. Sharpton, “The voters have spoken.”

“The voters have not spoken,” Mr. Sharpton said, arguing Mr. Rather had oversold Mr. Edwards’ performance. “He’s won one primary. He’s come in fourth seven times.”

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio also participated in the debate.

For his part, Mr. Edwards promised to remain in the campaign even if he doesn’t win any contests tomorrow.

“The American people deserve this choice. And we are a very different choice,” he said.

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