It had about as much zing as a chunk of mild Munster, as much kick as a
slice of bland Monterey Jack.
The candidates kept the gloves on during the most recent Democratic
presidential debate Sunday night in Milwaukee. Two days before
Wisconsin's crucial primary, the winnowed field of Democratic hopefuls
produced few fireworks or memorable moments despite the high stakes for
Wisconsin, a state better known for cheese than for politics, could
mark the end of the campaign trail for former governor Howard Dean of
Vermont. A week ago, he pledged to exit the race if he failed to win
there. Though he later had a change of heart and vowed to remain in the
game regardless of the results, pressure is mounting on him to give up.
So it seemed Dean would have the least to lose and most to gain Sunday
by attacking the front-runner, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. But
the once-pugnacious Dean pulled in his horns again, as he has done many
times since his poor finish in the Iowa caucuses four weeks ago.
In the past, Dean has criticized Kerry harshly for accepting what Dean
said were special-interest-tinged campaign funds from Washington
lobbyists. During Sunday's debate, a panelist asked Dean if he still
believed Kerry was part of "the same corrupt political culture" that
produced George Bush.
Dean didn't take the bait. Instead, he turned his fire on the White
House. "I think George Bush has some nerve attacking anybody on special
interests," said Dean, referring to a negative video about Kerry
running on the Bush-Cheney re-election Web site.
In another sign that Wisconsin will make or break Dean, his campaign
chairman said Sunday that Dean will throw his support to Kerry if he
fails to win Tuesday, according to a New York Times report.
Another candidate who stood to gain by taking Kerry down a notch was
Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, the only other remaining
candidate who has won a primary or caucus to date. But he too passed on
most opportunities to challenge Kerry directly.
During campaign appearances in Wisconsin over the past week, Edwards
has touted his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying it has resulted in the loss of thousands of U.S.
manufacturing jobs. Wisconsin has lost an estimated 90,000 jobs since
1999, many of them in manufacturing.
Kerry voted in favor of NAFTA, a fact Edwards mentions only
occasionally. Edwards stuck to much the same script Sunday night.
Rather than criticize Kerry, he recalled his personal history as the
son of a blue-collar worker.
"I saw what happened when the mill in my hometown closed," he said. "I
saw the looks on the faces of the men and women who had worked there,
many of them for decades, and had nowhere to go."
Edwards said he had recently visited a manufacturing plant for auto
parts maker Tower Automotive in Milwaukee. The company has announced
plans to relocate the facility to Mexico to reduce labor costs.
"It all looked very familiar to me," said Edwards. "I will stand up and
fight every way I know how to protect these jobs, including the jobs
that are being lost at Tower Automotive, because I have lived with this
my entire life and I take it very personally."
Kerry continued to look beyond his rivals. He said he expects the fall
campaign to turn nasty. In recent days, rumors about Kerry's personal
life have been floating around cyberspace, as well as a doctored photo
of Kerry standing alongside Jane Fonda during the height of the
anti-Vietnam War protests. A legitimate photo of Kerry sitting some
distance behind Fonda at an anti-war event was published in major
newspapers last week.
"I'm prepared to stand up to any attack they come at me with," said
Kerry, later adding, "I have been in very visible, tough races in the
course of my life. I am ready for what they throw at me."
The subtle implication that the Democratic primaries fight was all but
over appeared to get under Edwards' skin. He has pledged to remain in
the race regardless of the Wisconsin outcome.
"Not so fast, John Kerry," he said. "We've got an election coming up
And Edwards couldn't resist one other jab at the front-runner. The two
senators were asked if they felt in some way personally responsible for
the current situation in Iraq since both voted for a resolution that
authorized the president to use force there.
Kerry didn't respond directly. Instead, he faulted Bush for not
exploring every possible diplomatic option before leading the invasion
"What I was voting for was the process the president promised," Kerry
said. "There was a right way to do this and there was a wrong way. The
president chose the wrong way."
In response, Edwards said, "That's the longest answer I've ever heard
to a yes or no question."
"The answer to your question is: of course. We all accept
responsibility for what we did. I did what I believed was right. I took
it very, very seriously."
For more political news, insight into the 2004 presidential election and information on registering to vote, check out ChooseorLose.com