Thursday night’s wide-ranging and refreshingly substantive debate between the four remaining contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination did little to slow the momentum of frontrunner John Kerry as the likely-to-be-definitional Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses approach. Kerry outmaneuvered his chief opponent on a key issue, and showed some skills that will likely serve him well in a November contest with Republican George W. Bush. But the Massachusetts senator made at least one statement – regarding presidential war making — that ought to concern anyone who still thinks Congress should have a say on matters of war and peace.
Here are some highlights and lowlights from what is likely to be one of the last debates of the primary season:
KERRY TRUMPED JOHN EDWARDS ON THE TRADE ISSUE. The North Carolina senator has made criticism of free trade policies a central theme of his campaign to upset Kerry in “Super Tuesday” primaries and caucuses in states such as California, New York, Ohio, Georgia and Minnesota. And Edwards has plenty of ammunition for the fight, as Kerry’s record on trade issues is difficult to distinguish from that of George W. Bush. But, when the trade issue came up during Thursday’s Los Angeles Times/CNN debate, Kerry was ready for Edwards. And he hit the North Carolina senator where it hurt.
After Edwards suggested that the frontrunner was changing his pro-free trade tune with recent statements about the need to insert protections for workers and the environment into trade agreements, Kerry suggested to voters that Edwards is, himself, something of a newcomer to the fair-trade movement.
Asked if he was “shocked” by Edwards’ focus on the trade issue, Kerry said, “Well, I am surprised, because in his major speech on the economy in Georgetown this past June, John never even mentioned trade. And the fact is that, just the other day in New York, in The New York Times, he is quoted as saying to The New York Times that he thought NAFTA was important for our prosperity. Now he’s claiming that he was against it and these other agreements.”
Then, Kerry added, “I have said clearly for a number of years now, we have to have labor and environment standards in all of our trade agreements. That is exactly the same position as John Edwards.”
From an issue standpoint, that was as close as Kerry and Edwards got to clashing. For the most part, they simply avoided taking shots at one another. That was good for Kerry, and devastating for Edwards, because polls show the North Carolinian continues to trail in all the big states that will vote March 2. Edwards is drawing large crowds, and he has momentum in Georgia and upstate New York. He has won some important newspaper endorsements in California, from the Sacramento Bee and the L.A. Weekly. But, in debate after debate, he has refused to take the bait when questioners have offered him opportunities to draw clear distinctions between himself and Kerry. On Thursday night, when he really needed to make those distinctions, Edwards instead sounded like he was more concerned about getting his name on Kerry’s list of prospective running mates.