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Transcript: CBS-New York Times Democratic Debate

And I sometimes hear journalists say, "Well, you know, the people who vote, they just don't understand the issues well enough. They don't understand the subtleties of the difference between you and John Kerry at the fourth level of tax policy."

Well, here's the truth about that. The truth about that is the American people get it right. What they know is they know in their gut when somebody's telling them the truth. They have a radar for the truth, and they know who they can trust. They know whether you're honest and sincere, and whether they can rely on you and trust you...

_____CBS-NYT Dem. Debate_____
In N.Y. Debate, It's No More Mr. Nice Guys (The Washington Post, Mar 1, 2004)
Debate Raises Doubts For Kerry-Edwards Run (The Washington Post, Mar 1, 2004)
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RATHER: But excuse me, one second...

EDWARDS: But that, I think -- if I could just finish -- that, I think, is the ultimate issue. When they look in your eyes, when they hear what you have to say, do they trust you, and do they want you to be their president?

RATHER: Let me call time out for just one second, because this is necessary. We are inside roughly the 13-minute mark here, and I have to do something now that I wish I didn't have to do. I wish we had the rest of the afternoon to talk about it, but we need to pick up the pace in these 13 minutes, because there are any number of subjects that we have not covered.

So, let me, with your permission, change the subject very quickly. I do ask for brevity here. We'll try to work everybody in.

But, Senator Kerry, what's wrong with gay marriage?

KERRY: I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. It's a personal belief.

RATHER: Well, what's wrong with a man and a man committing to each other for life?

KERRY: What I think -- I think it's a distinction between what you believe the institution of marriage is, but what's important, Dan, is that you give people rights. I'm for rights, not for terminology or status -- rights.

RATHER: But who does it hurt, Senator?

KERRY: I think all -- that's not the issue. The issue is...

RATHER: Well, that's the question.

KERRY: ... are we prepared to provide rights to all Americans, so that they share the same rights as other people, not the same terminology or status?

I believe that the right, the spousal rights -- the right of inheritance, the right with respect to taxes, the right with respect to visitation in a hospital -- there are a whole series of rights. I am for those rights being afforded to every single American without distinction.

KUCINICH: May I respond?

RATHER: But who does it hurt, Congressman?

KUCINICH: First of all, I'm glad that Senator Kerry says he's for rights. I think it would be instructive to review the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, because I think that many Americans believe that equality of opportunity should not be denied on account of race, color, creed or sexual orientation.

And so what we're really talking about is having people be able to avail themselves of the same protections of civil law, that 1,047 different protections that people have when they're married, and to enable those privileges to be extended to everyone regardless of sexual orientation.

This is really about who we are, not just as a party, but as a nation. And we have to show capacity to expand. And I think any of us who are up here should be willing to take a stand on behalf of those people who are about to be excluded by the president of the United States from the protection...


KIRTZMAN: I'm kind of curious, Senator Kerry. If one of your children came to you and said, "First of all, I'm gay; second of all, I've met someone of the same gender that I want to marry," would you go to the wedding? Would you respect that relationship?

KERRY: I've been to the wedding of somebody who has gotten married who's gay, and I just happen to have a different opinion about what you call it and what the status is.

But I believe they deserve all the rights, all the support, all the love, all the affection, all of the rights that the state can afford. That's why...


KERRY: That's why I am for civil union. That's why I'm for partnership rights. That's why I'm for even the federal extension, with respect to tax code and other rights.

RATHER: Reverend Sharpton?

SHARPTON: I think that's states' rights. I think you cannot have any civil or human rights left up to the states.

RATHER: So you're for a constitutional amendment?

SHARPTON: I am for the constitutional right for human beings to decide what they want to do with human beings. Which is why I think the likeable thing is one issue here, is not who runs against the president, it's what runs against the president. 

RATHER: All right, let me again move on... 

SHARPTON: And I think what must run against the president is the rights of American citizens to have fair and equal rights.

RATHER: Let me just say...

BUMILLER: Let me ask John...

EDWARDS: Can I just say, though, how extraordinarily political what this president is doing is. I mean, here -- first of all, there's no issue...

BUMILLER: No, no. Here's the question. 

EDWARDS: Yes, ma'am.

BUMILLER: Do you see a difference between gay rights and civil rights? Why is one right a federal right, and the other one you're saying leave it to the states? What's the difference here?

EDWARDS: Here's what I say. I say that the federal government plays an important role in civil rights and in gay rights. I believe the federal government should recognize what the state, who has forever, now, decided what constitutes marriage...

BUMILLER: Why is there a different standard here?

EDWARDS: But wait a second, wait a second. We're talking about what the definition of marriage is, which is something that has always been decided by states, not rights. Now, see, this is one place that actually Senator Kerry and I largely agree. If we're talking about a bundle of rights, with what rights you'd get under federal law for partners, the problems with adoption...

SHARPTON: But they used to say that blacks were three-fifths of a human. What do you mean? Are gays and lesbians human or not?

EDWARDS: Of course they're human.

SHARPTON: Then why can't they have the same human rights?

BUMILLER: I hate to ask this question because I never get an answer, but what is the difference between a gay marriage and a gay civil union, when you have heterosexuals getting married at city hall, and there's no religion involved and it's called a civil ceremony? What is the difference?

SHARPTON: They say you can shack up, just don't get married. That's the difference.

RATHER: If I may, we need to move on.

BUMILLER: But the answer?

EDWARDS: The answer is, I believe that gay and lesbian couples should be respected. I think they're entitled to rights. And that's what I think the role...

BUMILLER: But you just can't call it marriage.

EDWARDS: I think it's for the states to decide that.

RATHER: We're at 11:51 eastern time. We are all going to get criticized if we don't move to at least some foreign policy questions.

Senator Kerry...

KERRY: What about the economy, health care, education...

RATHER: I wish we had another three hours. Here's the question...


RATHER: I want to talk about North Korea. You're president of the United States, and you get information, absolutely unequivocal information, that the North Koreans, not only do they nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver those nuclear weapons, but that they are real and present threats to Japan and some of their neighbors (ph).

Are you prepared, under those circumstances, to move and move decisively with American military power?

KERRY: Of course I'd do whatever is necessary to protect the security of the United States of America. Bill Clinton moved quite authoritatively when the Straits of Taiwan were being threatened by China. I would do the same thing. 

KERRY: But here is what is important with respect to North Korea. I believe that between China, Japan and South Korea and our own interests, and the state of the economy in North Korea and their own interests, there is a deal to be struck. 

And what is quite extraordinary is that this administration did not follow up on the extraordinary work of Bill Perry, of Bill Clinton, President Clinton, and the work that they did to actually get inspectors and television cameras into the Pyongyang reactor. Now they're gone. 

This administration has made the world less safe because they were unwilling to continue that dialogue.

RATHER: Senator Edwards?

KERRY: I will go back immediately to that dialogue. And I believe we can avoid the very situation you describe.

BUMILLER: But, Senator Kerry, they did make some progress this weekend in those talks. How can you...

KERRY: Yes, but, Elizabeth, let me tell you something. The progress is so minimal, it is so slow, and it's begrudging. And they are not doing the kind of direct, head-to-head negotiations. 

And I have said that I would put all of the issues of the peninsula on the table, not just the nuclear issue, but the economic, the human rights, the deployment of forces. There are major issues there...

RATHER: Senator Edwards, is this talking the question to death? And as president, would you be prepared to commit American military power to subdue North Korea under the circumstances I outlined?

EDWARDS: I would never take that option off the table.

I think the starting place, the starting place -- first of all, these negotiations that have just taken place, and John mentioned all of the countries -- Russia, in addition to that -- that were participating in these discussions, we need all of these countries involved.

But the problem is, we weren't leading the discussions. We were sitting in the background. The South Koreans were making proposals; others were making proposals. We weren't leading.

The reality is that this is a serious, serious threat. They have allowed this to get to crisis situation. I said that at the very beginning about the whole problem with Haiti. This is a pattern. This is not an isolated incident. This is a pattern.

Now we're in crisis, and now they're doing something. But why was Colin Powell not there? Why were we not seriously leading these negotiations?

What we need is we need to demand that they stop their nuclear weapons program. We need to have absolute ability to verify that that's occurring. And we need to be willing to give something in return.

KUCINICH: And in order to have credibility, in order to have credibility, John, we should be canceling our nuclear programs. We're building new nuclear weapons. 

How can we tell North Korea, you shouldn't have a nuclear program...

BUMILLER: Let's move on...

RATHER: Sorry, I have to call a television time-out here.

KUCINICH: Dan, we have to work for nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear abolition. 

And as president, I would meet with the leader of North Korea and assure him that we mean North Korea no harm; he can put away is weapons. We need to do that with the whole...

RATHER: Congressman, what I need to do is to point out that we need a two-minute drill here now. We're inside the two-minute mark. If we have a two-minute grill, please.

The fence or wall in the Middle East -- the Israelis say it's a fence, the Palestinians call it a wall.

Senator Kerry, what do you call it?

KERRY: A fence necessary to the security of Israel until they have a partner to be able to negotiate.

RATHER: Reverend Sharpton?

SHARPTON: I think it's a fence, but I think that we must keep Palestinian rights in mind. 

SHARPTON: And I think it will not work unless we have cooperation of all sides, and we not in any way, shape or form have an unbalanced Middle East policy that we've had so far.

RATHER: Fence or a wall?

EDWARDS: It is a fence, both symbolically and in reality. There are only a very few miles of it that are made of concrete.

And the Israelis have the right to protect themselves. And I agree that until we get to the place that they have a real partner, which America has to play an enormous role in, they're entitled to build the fence.

RATHER: Congressman?

KUCINICH: When Israel builds something on its territory, it's a fence. But when they build something on the Palestinians' territory, it's a wall.

And I think that we need to help bring the parties together, for peaceful coexistence and restart the peace talks.

RATHER: I want you to keep in mind, we have about a minute-15. 

Ms. Bumiller?

BUMILLER: Really fast, on a Sunday morning, President Bush has said that freedom and fear have always been at war, and God is not neutral between them. He's made quite clear in his speeches that he feels God is on America's side.

Really quick, is God on America's side?

KERRY: Well, God will -- look, I think -- I believe in God, but I don't believe, the way President Bush does, in invoking it all the time in that way. I think it is -- we pray that God is on our side, and we pray hard. And God has been on our side through most of our existence.

BUMILLER: Senator?

EDWARDS: Well, there's a wonderful story about Abraham Lincoln during the middle of the Civil War bringing in a group of leaders, and at the end of the meeting one of the leaders said, "Mr. President, can we pray, can we please join in prayer that God is on our side?" And Abraham Lincoln's response was, "I won't join you in that prayer, but I'll join you in a prayer that we're on God's side."

SHARPTON: And I think that's the point...

BUMILLER: Reverend Sharpton?

SHARPTON: I think it's important we're on God's side, as I said earlier, that we must (inaudible). 

But I also think we've got to heal this president from feeling like he and America is the same thing. God is on America's side. That does not mean He supports what George Bush...

RATHER: Fifteen seconds, Congressman.

KUCINICH: We need to break the spell of fear which is over this country. Remember where we come from as a country. When Francis Scott Key wrote that "Star-Spangled Banner," he made the connection when he said, "Does that star-spangled banner yet wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave?" The connection between democracy and courage.

I would call out the courage of the American people, and defend our rights, cancel the Patriot Act, reestablish the fullness of our democracy.

RATHER: Congressman and Senators, Reverend, our time is up. We want to thank the Democratic candidates for president, all of you, for joining us here today, and particularly for participating in this kind of discussion.

Senator John Kerry, Senator John Edwards, Congressman Dennis Kucinich and the Reverend Al Sharpton.

President James Madison once said, "A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with knowledge." We hope we've added some of that this morning.

Thank you all very much.

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