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Kerry Unscathed, Again

David Paul Kuhn,
CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
analyzes the Golden State debate

Sen. John Edwards failed to adequately challenge Democratic frontrunner Sen. John Kerry in Thursday night's debate, as the Massachusetts senator stands on the verge of sweeping the ten contests this Tuesday, the largest prize of the primary season.

Both Kerry and Edwards said they were against gay marriage but did not support the constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, backed by President Bush.


CBS News Anchor Dan Rather will moderate a debate among the four Democratic presidential contenders on Sunday, Feb. 29, at 11:00 AM ET. Watch a live Webcast on CBSNews.com.

Although the two senators volleyed on topics like trade, the only issue where the two clearly differed was the death penalty. Kerry is against the death penalty and Edwards supports it.

When questioned about what should happen to a child killer, Kerry took his hands off the table and said, "My instinct is to want to strangle that person with my own hands.

"But we have 111 people who have been now released from death row," Kerry continued. "Because of DNA evidence that showed they didn't commit the crime of which they were convicted."

Edwards was quick to differ. Referring to the brutal attack on James Byrd, a black man in Texas who was dragged to death by his attackers' pickup truck in 1998, Edwards said there are "crimes that deserve the ultimate punishment."

When pressed, Edwards said he would not suspend the death penalty even with over 100 people found innocent on death row, although he cited the importance of adding safeguards to prevent wrongful convictions.

Moderated by CNN's Larry King, the 90-minute debate was sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and CNN. Democratic candidates Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Rev. Al Sharpton also joined in the debate, but neither has been competitive throughout the primary race.

"The format hurt Edwards considerably to have Kucinich and Sharpton on the stage with him because he was reduced to the level of a minor candidate," said Shanto Iyengar, a professor of American politics at Stanford University.

The debate took place at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and was conducted in the format of King's evening talk show. There were no strict rules as the four candidates sat beside one another. It was more Sunday morning news circuit than 11th hour debate, more conversational than confrontational.

"There are more groans in a professional wrestling match than there were tonight, we have a rallying Democratic Party," said Bob Mulholland, California Democratic Party chief strategist. "I thought Kerry and Edwards acted like teammates getting ready for the big fall game."

The big fall game being the general election, Kerry continued his focus on President Bush throughout the debate, calling Mr. Bush at one point a "walking contradiction."

"He has broken almost every promise he made," Kerry said, "about Social Security, about children, about the environment, about deficits, about creating jobs, and I think those are the real issues of this campaign."

This Tuesday is Super Tuesday, the largest contest of the year where 1,151 delegates are up for grabs. In electoral giants California and New York, carrying about half of the day's delegates, Kerry leads Edwards by a 3-to-1 margin, according to the polls. Even in Georgia, the only southern contest of Super Tuesday, Edwards trails Kerry by 8 to 16 percentage points, depending upon the poll.

Kerry so far has won 18 of 20 Democratic contests, while Edwards has won only his birthplace of South Carolina. After Edwards' strong second in the Feb. 17 Wisconsin primary, the Democratic race became ostensibly a two-man contest.

Edwards has a nearly impossible climb if he wants to become the Democratic nominee. Kerry has so far won 748 delegates -- three times as many as Edwards' 240.

Of the remaining contests on March 2, five are New England states expected to be won by Kerry. With Ohio and Minnesota also likely to fall in Kerry's coffer, the Massachusetts senator stands on the cusp of a sweep. Such a sweep would be a demonstrable deathblow to Edwards' candidacy, since Super Tuesday represents half the delegates necessary to secure the Democratic nomination, 2,161.

Edwards vows to remain in the race even if he does not win a single state on Tuesday, pointing out he will still pick up delegates.

But he is running out of time. On Sunday, he has one more chance to challenge Kerry at the CBS News/WCBS-TV/New York Times debate.

Thursday night, Edwards certainly was too much himself during the debate -- too genial, too genteel and too reserved. He was critical but not confrontational.

Edwards cited his stance against the Chilean, Singaporean and African trade agreements, pointing out that Kerry voted for all three. But he refused to challenge Kerry when he cited those agreements as having "very strong enforcement mechanisms."

Edwards was oblique not only in his spars with Kerry, but also on his view of the Congressional resolution authorizing the war in Iraq -- which both he and Kerry supported.

After Edwards' repeatedly ducked a question as to whether he regretted that support, Kerry took an aggressive posture, saying he did not regret his vote, but he regretted "a president who misled the country."

The formula for Edwards to successfully challenge Kerry is simple: he needs to transcend the nice-guy demeanor and give primary voters a rationale as to why they should not vote for Kerry.

His reluctance to do that betrays his public insistence that he is seeking the presidency. Edwards seems unwilling to risk estranging Kerry by challenging him directly for the nomination.

"When you have won one out of 21 contests, you have to be cautious," said Mulholland, explaining why Edwards was reluctant to attack Kerry. "For the first time in decades Democrats are looking more at the Republicans than each other."