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Dems Tussle Over Trade

Democratic front-runner John Kerry earned the endorsement of the AFL-CIO Thursday, with the head of organized labor saying, "the time has come to unite behind one man, one leader, one candidate."

Amid chants of "Kerry! Kerry!," the Massachusetts senator welcomed the support of a formidable ally as he tries to blunt rival John Edwards' challenges to his position on trade.

"Today we stand united in a common cause and that common cause is not just to defeat George Bush, but it is to put our country back on track, on the road of prosperity, the road of fairness, the road of jobs," Kerry told the crowd.

But John Edwards, his campaign boosted by criticism of U.S. trade policy and the loss of jobs to overseas markets, on Thursday called trade "a moral issue" that sets him apart from Kerry.

"When we talk about trade, we are talking about values," Edwards said in a speech at Columbia University as he tried to build on a surprisingly strong second-place showing in the Wisconsin primary.

The North Carolina senator focused on the economy and jobs while campaigning in Wisconsin, largely by making the case that trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement have led to a flow of high-paying jobs to China and other low-wage countries.

Edwards said he believes the same theme will work in the 10 states holding "Super Tuesday" primaries March 2. He is targeting Georgia, Ohio and the industrial regions of upstate New York.

While Kerry has been critical of the way free trade deals have been carried out, the Massachusetts senator voted for them, setting the stage for the loss of jobs in the United States, Edwards said.

"There is no question that our current trade policies are good for the profits of multinational corporations," he said. "They are good for some people in the financial sector here in New York City — not all, but some."

Edwards continued his criticism of Kerry for voting for the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement that many workers blame for job losses. Edwards said he opposed NAFTA during his 1998 Senate campaign.

"Those trade deals were wrong," he said. "They cost us too many jobs and lowered our standards."

But Kerry said he and Edwards have the same policy on trade. Both voted for normalized trade relations with China and both want to see labor and environmental standards addressed in trade pacts, he said.

Although Edwards said he would have voted against NAFTA, Kerry said: "He wasn't in the Senate back then. I don't know where he registered his vote, but it wasn't in the Senate."

In endorsing Kerry, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called the Massachusetts senator a friend of the working man as he urged labor to stand with one candidate. The AFL-CIO, comprised of 64 unions representing more than 13 million U.S. workers, is planning an unprecedented effort to mobilize their members to vote for Kerry.

The labor vote has been a significant part of the Democratic base, with union members voting for Al Gore over George Bush by about a 2-to-1 margin in 2000, according to exit polls. Those in labor households made up a quarter of the vote, and they went for Gore by almost as big a margin.

In the Democratic primaries this year, those from labor households have made up anywhere from a fourth of the vote to a third of the vote in states such as Delaware, Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin with a significant labor presence, according to exit polls.

Edwards said that while union leaders may be coalescing behind Kerry, he is winning the battle for rank-and-file members who face the daily pressures of jobs losses.

Edwards, whose father worked at a mill in North Carolina, said he has a better understanding than Kerry of blue-collar issues.

"I've done extraordinarily well among union households," he said. "If you look at what's happened in the early primaries, I have not had the endorsement of labor unions and I've done very well. I will continue to speak directly to union households and working people."

But exit polls conducted for The Associated Press showed that such voters tended to support Kerry by narrow margins in Iowa and Wisconsin and by substantial margins — from 20 to 40 percentage points — in Missouri and Delaware.

In another coup for the Kerry, he was poised to pick up the backing of nine-term Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a leader in the civil rights movement whose support will be crucial in the state's March 2 primary. Georgia has 86 delegates at stake, and Southern-bred Edwards has made it a prime target.

As he pushed forward into the March 2 round of voting, Edwards was forced to set aside precious campaign time to raise money. He attended a fund-raising event in New York and was heading to Florida on Thursday for another. His campaign said he raised $700,000 on Wednesday, following his solid finish in Wisconsin.