GREENVILLE, S.C. — GREENVILLE, S.C. - Front-running Sen. John Kerry escaped unscathed last night from a nationally televised presidential debate, five days before a potentially decisive round of primaries in South Carolina and other states.
The Massachusetts senator drew only gentle jabs from by his rivals, who are under pressure to prevent a Kerry sweep next Tuesday that would put the nomination within his reach.
After waiting two-thirds of the way through the 90-minute debate for someone else to attack first, former Gov. Howard Dean took Kerry on. But Dean, his campaign in disarray and his prospects for winning the nomination increasingly dim, was far less combative than earlier in the campaign.
"Senator Kerry's the front-runner and I mean him no insult," said Dean, taking aim after having described the debate as "mellow" to moderator Tom Brokaw of NBC during a commercial break.
Dean suggested that Kerry had been ineffective as a legislator, by noting that the senator had proposed 11 health-care measures during his 19 years in Congress, none of which passed. Dean contrasted that with his own success in expanding health care for residents of Vermont during his 11 years as governor.
Kerry responded by mildly lecturing Dean, who lacks Washington experience.
"One of the things you need to know as a president is how things work in Congress, if you want to get things done," said Kerry. He said that "if you're smart about it," a senator could piggyback his ideas on someone else's legislation, as Kerry said he had done.
Kerry also answered Dean's claim that only an outsider, such as Dean, would be able to get things done in the federal government. Kerry said it was "time to recognize" that Congress had "got a lot done" in health care, such as enabling states such as Vermont to extend health care to children.
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, whose campaign in this next-door state faces a surprisingly stiff challenge from Kerry, only indirectly criticized the senator. For the most part, Edwards hewed to the positive strategy that proved effective in the opening round of the '04 race, in Iowa, but left him a fourth-place finisher in the New Hampshire primary this week.
Edwards, using his skills as a courtroom litigator, seized on an opening after Kerry said that the Bush administration had exaggerated the terrorist threat facing the country.
"It's just hard for me to see how you can say there's an exaggeration, when thousands of people lost their lives on September the 11th," said Edwards.
'The race is over'
After the debate, political scientist Merle Black, a member of the debate audience at the Peace Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Greenville, said Kerry "came in the leader and nobody challenged him effectively. That tells me the race is over."
Black, a visiting fellow at Furman University, which co-sponsored the event with South Carolina's Young Democrats, said that "Edwards did not do what he needed to do. He really didn't stand out in the debate."
The debate drew a nationwide cable audience on MSNBC. But the candidates focused on South Carolina and largely ignored the voters of Missouri, Arizona, Oklahoma and other states with primaries and caucuses Tuesday.
South Carolina could be a pivotal contest if Kerry is able to defeat Edwards, who has called this a must-win state for him.
Edwards and Kerry, leaders in the polls here, managed to hit the main themes of their campaigns in the Palmetto State.
Kerry got in repeated mentions of his leading supporters, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings and Rep. James E. Clyburn. Edwards mentioned that he was born in South Carolina, 40 miles from the debate site.
Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, asked about Democratic Chairman Terry McAuliffe's advice that candidates without a victory after next Tuesday consider quitting the race, said he was going to win some states in the next two weeks.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, despite drawing only 1 percent of the vote in the first two states, said he would go all the way to the convention.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has stumped aggressively for this state's large African-American vote, said he expected to win some states. He said it was "too cheap" to treat the campaign like a horse race, rather than the fact that 75,000 people in South Carolina had lost jobs under President Bush.
And Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, whose fifth-place finish in New Hampshire this week pushed his candidacy to the brink of elimination, drew audience laughter when he followed the other also-rans with a quip.
"One thing you're finding in our answers," he said. "Candidates who run for president are very optimistic people."
The debate was expected to be the last before Tuesday's big round of primaries and caucuses in seven states. In addition to South Carolina, Democrats will be voting in Missouri, Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico, North Dakota and Delaware.
With more states and far more delegates at stake than in the first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, the Feb. 3 contest has the potential to shape the remainder of the nomination campaign.
Kerry is attempting to show that he is a national candidate by competing in all seven states. His rivals, meanwhile, are concentrating on fewer places, hoping to pick up delegates and slow his momentum.
Edwards is campaigning in Missouri and Oklahoma, in addition to South Carolina, a state he has called a must-win for him. The senator from neighboring North Carolina was born in this state and has spent more time and money here than most of his rivals.
However, the candidate who probably spent the most time is Sharpton, who skipped the first two states and is hoping to pick up his first national convention delegates in South Carolina.
Dean would like to steal a victory, perhaps in New Mexico, though he said again yesterday that he does not have to win anywhere on Tuesday. However, Democratic politicians have said that without a victory, Dean will have increasing difficulty raising enough money and attracting enough votes to stop Kerry.
Dean's chief fund-raiser, Steve Grossman, has said the former governor needs a victory in the next two weeks to keep his nomination chances alive. Dean's strategy is rooted in party rules, which parcel out delegates to a candidate who wins at least 15 percent of the vote in a state or a congressional district, the two levels at which delegates are selected in primaries and caucuses.
"This race is about the next seven weeks, not the next seven states," Tricia Enright, the Dean campaign communications director, said in a statement.
Earlier in the day, Kerry responded to an attack by Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie portraying him as a liberal Easterner who is soft on national defense.
"It's the greatest form of flattery," said the senator. "I have voted for the largest defense budgets in the history of our country."
Former President Bill Clinton, during a visit to Capitol Hill, came to Kerry's defense when asked whether the Massachusetts Democrat was too liberal to be elected president.
"He was good on security, good on fiscal responsibility, good on welfare reform," said Clinton, who has been offering informal advice to most of the candidates.
Kerry formally received the endorsement of Clyburn, of South Carolina, widely regarded as the state's most influential elected official. The congressman's backing is considered a boost to Kerry's chances of getting significant support from African-Americans, expected to cast roughly two out of every five votes in the primary.
"When you look at the future, who has the resume, who has the experience to bring our country back together again?" asked Clyburn. "My choice is John Kerry."