NEW YORK, Feb. 29 -- With time running short to keep his presidential ambitions alive, Sen. John Edwards aggressively challenged the Democratic front-runner, Sen. John F. Kerry, in a televised debate Sunday as a big-spending politician who represents the "same old Washington talk" and whose long career in the capital leaves him ill-suited to force needed change.
His irritation evident, Kerry responded, "Last time I looked, John ran for the United States Senate, and he's been in the Senate for the last five years. That seems to me to be Washington, D.C."
The senator from Massachusetts, who has won 18 of the 20 states that have voted in this year's nominating contest, said the pivotal issue between him and his last major rival is "who has the experience and the proven ability -- proven ability -- to be able to stand up and take on tough fights."
This snappish exchange over experience and leadership qualities was typical of a spirited and sometimes chaotic debate, sponsored jointly by CBS News and the New York Times. The Sunday morning showdown, in which Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) and Al Sharpton also participated, was the last direct confrontation between the candidates before this week's pivotal Super Tuesday voting. Ten states will choose delegates, and a sweep by Kerry would effectively end the Democratic race.
With the stakes high, the cordiality that recently has marked this year's contest in recent weeks became strained, with the effect rather like a carload of passengers who are getting on one another's nerves after a long trip.
"Excuse me, John, if you'll let me finish," Edwards (N.C.) said, bristling, after Kerry tried to interrupt an answer about the crisis in Haiti.
"John has just misrepresented the position I've taken," Kerry protested, in an exchange over how to improve trade agreements to minimize U.S. job losses.
As it has in other debates, the argument over who is a tougher skeptic of free trade produced some of the sharpest clashes, at least rhetorically. On the substance, Kerry accused Edwards of exaggerating the real differences in their positions and of making a late and politically motivated arrival to the aggressive stance against trade agreements he has staked out on the campaign trail this year.
Edwards took umbrage. "The suggestion that I came late to this?" he said. "I want to say to Senator Kerry, I have lived with this my entire life. I saw what happened when the mill in my home town closed that my own father worked at."
Edwards opened a new line of attack in New York, accusing Kerry of advocating more spending proposals than he could pay for with his tax increases. Pointing to a report in Sunday's Washington Post showing Kerry has promised to spend at least $165 billion more than his tax package could finance during his first term in office, Edwards said the front-runner is offering the "same old Washington talk people have been listening to for decades."
Kerry, noting sarcastically that he thought "John would have learned by now not to believe everything he reads in a newspaper," termed the story "inaccurate."
He said The Post did not take into account the plan's emphasis on "stimulus," spending that he maintained "is by definition something you do outside of the budget for one or two years." This argument, which echoes the case President Bush has made on behalf of tax cuts and one that many Democrats criticized, was not made by Kerry's policy advisers in interviews before the article was published.
Kerry also said during the debate and during a town hall meeting later in the day that $139 billion in Medicare savings should have been factored in. But a top Kerry adviser said afterward that most of that savings would come after the candidate's first four years in office. On Sunday night, the adviser did not dispute that Kerry has promised to spend at least $165 billion more than he would save with his tax package and said the candidate was simply trying to highlight his confidence in reducing the deficit.
At the debate's start, CBS anchor Dan Rather promised a "freewheeling" exchange. He helped make that prediction come true with a passive approach to moderating, in which he sat silently several times when the debate became indecipherable as the bickering candidates and journalists talked simultaneously and accused one another of rudeness. Several minutes of the hour-long debate were taken up by Sharpton complaining that the panelists were trying to "stifle the discussion" and reduce him "to window dressing" by not giving him enough time to talk. "Well, I'm not going to be addressed this way," said Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller, one of two reporters who joined Rather on the panel.