By LARRY MARGASAK
The Associated Press
Monday, January 1, 2007; 9:24 PM
WASHINGTON -- Democratic presidential contender John Edwards says it is more important to invest in universal health care and lifting people out of poverty than to reduce the budget deficit.
The 2004 vice presidential nominee said in an interview broadcast Sunday said "there is a tension" between the two directions, but he has made his choice.
"If I were choosing now between which is more important, I think the investments are more important," he said on ABC's "This Week."
Edwards' proposal, which includes tax cuts and a million housing vouchers for the poor, may place him at odds with Democrats in charge of the congressional spending committees.
The incoming Senate and House Appropriations Committee chairmen, Sen., Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, have announced a plan to fund most domestic agency accounts at 2006 levels.
They envision some increases to avoid layoffs of federal employees and for politically sensitive programs such as veterans' medical treatment.
Edwards said he wanted to get the country "out of this ditch we're in fiscally" but acknowledged his plan "means you cannot do about the deficit what you'd like to do, that's true."
The former North Carolina senator, who announced his 2008 candidacy last week, said he believes in a trade policy with "labor and environmental protections that are achievable" by U.S. trading partners. But, he added, if the protections "are being used as a ruse to create a protectionist barrier, then I am not for that."
Edwards said he is not ready to take a position yet on gay marriage, and acknowledged his upbringing in the rural South makes this a troubling issue for him.
"It's easy for me to say, civil unions yes, partnership benefits, yes," he said. But on gay marriage, he said, "I'm just not there yet."
Edwards, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio have been the only Democrats to announce their 2008 White House bids.
Vilsack was asked on "Fox News Sunday" about two polls that showed him running third in his own state _ in one case behind Edwards and Sen. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, and in the other, trailing Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and Edwards.
Vilsack said the polls show he would win his state's caucuses if they included individuals who may become Democrats just to attend the caucus meetings.
Both Vilsack and Edwards said energy conservation would be a major campaign issue.
Vilsack, asked whether he would take on Democratic interest groups that might disagree with him, said members of a blue ribbon panel told him, "Look, you've got to do some things that the Republicans won't like; you've got to do some things that the Democrats won't like."
Vilsack said he's not sure that opening up more areas to drilling is the answer to energy problems.
"And it's not because of special interests. It's because of the situation involving oil today," he said.
"Ninety-five percent of the oil that we know of in the world today is going to be extracted at very high cost. We're going to have competition for oil from India and China and other expanding economies.
"We should not be relying on oil. We should be looking for alternative sources. We should be aggressively promoting alternative sources."
Edwards said Americans must make sacrifices in energy use, including changing their personal vehicles.
"There has to be a willingness to give up some of the vehicles they drive, and I myself have driven," he said.
Edwards said he is not advocating a gasoline tax increase at this time but added, "You can't take it off the table."