LOS ANGELES, Feb. 26 -- Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) clashed over the death penalty, trade and special interests in a lively debate here Thursday, with Edwards questioning Kerry's ability to carry crucial swing states against President Bush and Kerry touting his experience as a key ingredient for victory this fall.
But the two rivals for the Democratic nomination agreed on the issue of gay marriage, with both saying they are against such marriages while sharply condemning Bush for proposing an amendment to the Constitution barring such unions.
"He is doing this because he's in trouble," Kerry said. "He's trying to reach out to his base. He's playing politics with the Constitution of the United States."
Five days before the biggest primary and caucus day of the Democratic nominating season, Edwards sought to highlight his differences with the party's front-runner, arguing that Kerry is too much a Washington insider to challenge special interests. Kerry said the differences between them are far narrower than Edwards has suggested.
The tone was often polite and congenial between the two leading candidates, but there was frequent disagreement. One clear difference emerged when CNN's Larry King, who moderated the debate, asked Kerry, who opposes the death penalty except in cases of terrorism, why he opposes putting to death those who kill children.
Kerry replied: "Larry, my instinct is to want to strangle that person with my own hands. I understand the instincts, I really do. I prosecuted people. I know what the feeling of the families is and everybody else. But we have 111 people who have been now released from death row -- death row, let alone the rest of the prison system -- because of DNA evidence that showed they didn't commit the crime of which they were convicted."
The question was reminiscent of one that went to 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis in a debate with Bush's father that Dukakis bobbled to his later regret. Kerry was having none of that Thursday night, with an answer designed to show his outrage at such heinous crimes while standing behind his general opposition to the death penalty.
Edwards took the opposite position. He said states should be free to review their use of the death penalty, in light of DNA evidence, but said that would not change his overall view on the issue.
"Those men who dragged James Byrd behind that truck in Texas -- they deserve the death penalty. And I think there are some crimes that deserve the ultimate penalty," he said.
Kerry and Edwards also sparred over international trade, with Edwards pointing out that he has voted against a series of trade agreements supported by his rival. "There is a difference here," he said. "There is a difference between Senator Kerry and myself. . . . What he's saying now is different than what he did in the past."
But Kerry tweaked Edwards for delivering a major economic speech last fall without mentioning trade. Although their voting records may be different, he said, they have "exactly the same position" on the importance of putting provisions for labor and environmental standards into future treaties.
Edwards challenged Kerry as a political insider, saying voters want change in Washington. "Do you believe that change is more likely to be brought about by someone who has spent 20 years in Washington, or by someone who's more of an outsider to this process -- somebody who comes from the same place that most Americans come from?" he asked.
But Kerry questioned Edwards's credibility to challenge him on connections to special interests, saying, "John has raised 50 percent of his money from one group of people." He was referring to trial lawyers -- Edwards was one before he won his Senate seat in 1998.
Kerry said he had co-written a far-reaching campaign finance bill calling for public financing of political campaigns -- a measure that has never passed -- and said he would enact strict measures to prevent government officials from lobbying for five years after leaving government.