Haiti, trade and gay marriage were among the issues on the table Sunday as the four Democrats seeking their party's presidential nod met in New York in a debate sponsored by CBS News and The New York Times.
Edwards dismissed suggestions that he is vying to be Kerry's running mate. "Oh, no! Far from it," he said, then took on Kerry in tougher-than-ever terms two days before a potentially decisive 10-state primary Tuesday.
The debate comes as a new CBS News poll gives Kerry a huge lead over Edwards, 61 percent to 15 percent, among Super Tuesday voters.
The same poll shows a Kerry/Edwards ticket beating one headed by Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in the fall election, by a margin of 50 percent to 42 percent.
Asked in the debate if he would remain in the race if he lost all ten races on Tuesday, Edwards replied, "Yes, ma'am, I'm going to be the nominee."
Both Edwards and Kerry reiterated their opposition to gay marriage, though they support legal rights for gays under civil unions.
"I've been to the wedding of somebody who happened to be gay," Kerry said.
Edwards questioned Kerry's free-trade record, dismissing his plan to review all trade agreements once he takes office. "The fundamental issue in this election is whether the people of this country believe that we're going to get change that originates in Washington or change that has to come from out there in the real world."
Kerry fired back, noting that Edwards himself serves in Congress. "That seems to me to be Washington, D.C."
On the day Haitian President Jean Bertrande Aristide fled Haiti amid a growing rebellion, the Democrats criticized President Bush's handling of the crisis.
"I never would have let things get out of control" in Haiti, said Kerry, the undisputed front-runner.
His top challenger, John Edwards, said Mr. Bush has "ignored Haiti the way he's ignored most of the countries in this hemisphere."
Long-shot candidate Al Sharpton, meanwhile, raised objections to what he saw as the debate ignoring him in favor of Kerry and Edwards.
"I'm not going to sit here and be window dressing," Sharpton said.
Kerry was hoping the debate would set the stage for a sweep in all ten states that cast votes this Tuesday. Edwards was hoping to capitalize on the backing of supporters of former candidate Howard Dean. Edwards made a conference call Saturday to former organizers for Dean in ten states to enlist their help.
The hourlong debate, moderated by CBS News Anchor Dan Rather, came two days before "Super Tuesday," when 10 states award 1,151 delegates — more than half the 2,162 needed to secure the Democratic presidential nomination.
The latest official CBS News delegate count shows Kerry with 761 pledged and so-called super-delegates, while Edwards has 241.
Edwards has virtually ceded four New England states to Kerry and stands little chance of victory in the biggest battlegrounds, New York and California, or Maryland. That leaves Georgia, Ohio, Minnesota as his targets — and polls show him trailing in those states.
Edwards hopes to score multiple victories Tuesday and keep his candidacy alive until March 9, when four Southern states hold primaries and caucuses. A sweep that week would set the stage for a showdown March 16 in Illinois.
Six months before the Republican convention, and the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Kerry said the Bush administration did not do enough to prevent the strikes and has not done enough since to protect the United States.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who has no chance of winning the nomination, said, "We should be taking action to make sure there are no funerals" and called for pulling troops out of Iraq.