MILWAUKEE - Front-runner John Kerry cautiously avoided clashing with his Democratic presidential opponents last night in a televised debate held two days before the Wisconsin primary, where polls show him with a huge lead.
The Massachusetts senator passed up an opportunity to criticize President Bush on his Vietnam-era military service. But he did say he had asked other Democrats not to label Bush a "deserter," as national party Chairman Terry McAuliffe did recently.
"The president has to speak for his own military record," said Kerry, who stopped short of asking the party chief to disavow his remark.
Kerry maintained his above-the-fray stance of recent days, and his answers seemed directed more at unifying his party than scoring debating points against his rivals.
"We're not going to divide this country. George Bush has been the great divider. We're going to bring it together," Kerry said at the end of the 90-minute debate, which may have been the last of the Democratic campaign.
To the extent that anyone challenged the party's presumptive nominee, only John Edwards sought to draw distinctions between himself and Kerry. The North Carolina senator has been hoping for a one-on-one matchup with Kerry, but that seems increasingly unlikely as the competitive phase of the contest nears an end.
Edwards' image as a positive campaigner has made it difficult for him to pull votes away from Kerry by attacking him directly. His attacks last night were muted.
Without mentioning Kerry's name, Edwards took issue with Kerry's statement that "97 percent of all Americans" would have health care coverage within "three years" if he became president.
"It's just not the truth," responded Edwards, who said such promises are among the reasons that Americans are cynical about Washington. "People need to know the truth about what we can afford and what we can't afford."
Kerry, playing it safe, with polls showing him the choice of more than 50 percent of likely primary voters, did not respond.
Among several questions the front-runner ducked was one that sought to get his position on a proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage.
"It depends on the terminology," said Kerry, who favors civil unions but opposes gay marriage.
Kerry also declined to say whether he would vote today in favor of the free-trade agreements he has supported in the past, but which are highly unpopular in states, such as Wisconsin, that have lost tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs in recent years.
Kerry also gave a lengthy response, but he avoided a direct answer, when asked whether his vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution had made him responsible for what has happened there, including the deaths of more than 500 Americans.
"That's the longest answer I ever heard to a yes-or-no question," Edwards said, adding that "of course" senators who voted for the war, including himself, "accept responsibility for what we did."
Edwards also provided the most theatrical moment of the debate - which was sponsored by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and held on the campus of Marquette University - after Kerry said his Vietnam combat experience was one of the reasons why he will defeat Bush.
"Not so fast, John Kerry," Edwards said. Pointing out that the Democratic contest isn't over, Edwards said he intended to fight "with everything I've got" for votes in the coming rounds of primaries.
The dynamics of a Democratic race that is rapidly winding down could also be glimpsed between the lines last night.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who has attacked Kerry at recent campaign events, passed up several opportunities to repeat the accusations. For his part, Kerry, eager to bring Dean and his legion of supporters in line behind his candidacy, made several flattering references to "Howard."
It was left to the most liberal candidates in the field, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, to deliver the most acerbic lines. Both said Bush knowingly lied to the country when he said he expected to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
When a panelist asked why Bush might have lied, Kucinich, who has won two convention delegates, replied, "I can't speak for the president. But I can speak as the next president of the United States," drawing laughter from the audience.
Wisconsin Democrats said afterward that they were delighted by the nonconfrontational tone of the event.
"I'm really pleased that they kept it very positive," said Democratic Gov. James E. Doyle, who had called on the candidates to stay positive in their campaigns here.
Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold agreed that "the Democrats looked pretty unified" last night.
The televised debate was the first to feature five candidates, half the size of the field when the campaign began. Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark withdrew last week and endorsed Kerry.
In advance of Kerry's expected victory here tomorrow, rival candidates are signaling their determination to keep going at least until March 2, or "Super Tuesday." Edwards announced a campaign swing this week through five states holding contests that day - New York, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio.
Dean said he intends to stay in the race, even if he extends his winless streak to 17 primaries and caucuses tomorrow. He plans to return to Vermont tomorrow night and reassess his campaign.
"We're going to keep going, no matter what, because I think there are a lot of people all over this country who want to rebuild the party and rebuild America in a different way," Dean said on Fox News Sunday.
During that interview, Dean repeatedly lapsed into the past tense as he spoke about his candidacy. He is likely to face increasing pressure from other Democrats, including some in his camp, to quit the race if he loses Wisconsin.
"I have no doubt he'll support the nominee in any way he can, no matter who the nominee is, and obviously that nominee looks to be John Kerry," Steve Grossman, Dean's national campaign chairman, told the Associated Press. "He may say that Tuesday night. He may wait until Wednesday or Thursday to say that."
According to polling conducted last week, Kerry leads in Wisconsin by more than 30 percentage points. The polls indicate that Edwards could finish second here, pushing Dean into third place.
Dean has urged his supporters to ignore the prognosticators and not "rubber-stamp" decisions made by Democratic primary voters in other states.
Ken Mayer, a University of Wisconsin political scientist, said the state's voters are open to maverick candidates. Iconoclasts such as former Sen. William Proxmire and Feingold have successfully appealed to voters' independent streak.
"A candidate who's not necessarily cautious can do well here," Mayer said. "But it doesn't seem to be happening now."