No Thrilla In Milwaukee When Remaining Democrats Debate

Dean, Edwards go easy on Kerry in advance of Wisconsin primary.

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

several contenders.

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

this Tuesday."

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

of Iraq.

"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."

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