LOS ANGELES - Democratic presidential contender John Kerry defended his liberal views in a televised debate last night, arguing that he is his party's best choice to challenge President Bush in all areas of the country this fall.
Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, climbed down from his earlier above-the-fray posture and highlighted his differences with his main challenger, Sen. John Edwards, confronting him much more directly than he has in recent debates, though without great heat or visible emotion.
The Massachusetts senator pointed to his victories in 18 of 20 delegate contests, in taking issue with Edwards' suggestion that Kerry lacks sufficient appeal for independent and Republican voters in the general election. Edwards also warned that Democrats "are going to be in trouble" if the party's nominee cannot "connect with voters everywhere in America."
Kerry shot back that he could win in the South, and he delivered a detailed argument designed to answer expected Republican attacks on his liberal voting record.
"When I went to the United States Senate in 1985, I was one of the first people to fight for deficit reduction. They care about balancing the budget in the South," Kerry said. "I've been a prosecutor. I've sent people to jail for the rest of their life. They care about law and order in the South.
"I'm a gun owner and a hunter, though I've never contemplated going hunting with an AK-47. And I believe I can speak to that culture. I'm a veteran. I've served in a war. They care about that. And I believe when it comes to jobs, health care, education, protecting the environment, breathing clean air, drinking clean water, the people of the South care about the same things."
Kerry was asked by moderator Larry King about his opposition to the death penalty, except in the case of terrorism, and whether someone who kills a young child should be allowed to live.
"Larry, my instinct is to want to strangle that person with my own hands," Kerry said. But he then went on to note mistakes that have led to executions of people later found not to have been guilty of murder.
His response was far more sharply worded than the politically damaging answer given by Michael S. Dukakis, the last Massachusetts Democrat to become the party's nominee, when asked, in a 1988 debate, what he would do if his wife were raped and murdered. Dukakis gave a lawyerly response, devoid of emotion, that capital punishment isn't a deterrent to murder.
Kerry's insistence on his ability to win votes in the South followed an exchange that began after he tried to shift the discussion away from the topic of gay marriage, calling that discussion "exactly where the Republicans want us to spend our time."
But Kerry refined his position on gay marriage and backed away from an earlier claim, made during a 1996 Senate speech opposing the federal Defense of Marriage Act, that the measure was unconstitutional.
"I think, under the full faith and credit laws, that I was incorrect in that statement," he said. "I think, in fact, that no state has to recognize something that is against their public policy."
Edwards said the Democratic nominee must be able to address voter concerns about social values, as well as about the economy, health care and education.
"You don't get to tell people what to think in any part of the country. You don't get to say to voters: 'This is what you can consider, and this is what you should not consider,'" said Edwards, who, nonetheless, stopped short of attacking Kerry more directly.
Edwards repeated his earlier argument that Democrats "need somebody who comes from outside" Washington, contrasting his outsider background with Kerry's 20 years in the Senate. He also drew a distinction between his refusal to accept contributions from lobbyists, and Kerry's willingness to do so.
"I know he's looking for some differences, because you need them," Kerry responded, referring to Edwards, who was seated beside him. "But there's not really a difference in this race between us in our commitment to get the lobbying out."
He promised to reinstate an early-Clinton-era order prohibiting executive branch appointees from going directly into lobbying for five years after leaving government.
The exchanges between the two leading Democratic candidates, while more direct were not as contentious as debates earlier in the campaign.
Last night's debate was the first to feature only four candidates.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, one of two minor candidates included in the event, drew some of the most enthusiastic responses from the audience.
"What about the other 10 Commandments? Let's make a constitutional amendment against presidents that lie. Let's deal with the whole thing," he said.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who has won only a handful of delegates, drew audience laughter when he said he would be proud to have any of the other candidates as his running mate.