Debate Strengthens Kerry's Front-Runner Position

John Kerry (search) says he will "do the work" necessary to win Wisconsin's Democratic presidential primary Tuesday, even though he has a hefty lead in the polls and emerged largely unscathed from debate with rivals trying to make a likely last stand.

Howard Dean (search) and John Edwards (search) were given several chances to criticized Kerry during a 90-minute debate Sunday night, but they seldom took advantage.

Dean in particular was uncharacteristically lenient on his leading rival. At one point, Dean rose to defend Kerry from Republican attacks that he is beholden to special interests, even though Dean himself has leveled similar charges.

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"I think George Bush has some nerve attacking anybody about special interests," the former Vermont governor said.

Dean, still winless after 16 Democratic nominating contests, has said he would make a stand in the Wisconsin primary but is trailing Kerry.

Some of his supporters, including his national campaign chairman, are urging him to quit. But the former Vermont governor insisted Sunday, "We are not bowing out."

Edwards also resisted suggestions that the contest is over.

"Not so fast, John Kerry," the North Carolina senator said after his Massachusetts colleague declared he would beat Bush. "We're going to have an election here in Wisconsin this Tuesday. And we've got a whole group of primaries coming up. And I, for one, intend to fight with everything I've got for every one of those votes."

Kerry, winner of 14 contests, said he's prepared for GOP attacks. "I am ready for what they throw at me," he said with all the confidence that he will win the nomination.

But when he stopped by a nearby pub where supporters had just finished watching the debate, he warned that the contest is not yet over.

"I don't care what the polls say," Kerry said. "There's only one way to make certain of an outcome in an election. It's get your voters out there, turnout the vote and do the work."

Kerry's cordial treatment in the debate added to the image of the Democratic Party rallying behind him as the presumptive nominee. Dean's campaign chairman, Steve Grossman, said if Dean loses Tuesday, he would seek to marshal his political network on behalf of the party and Kerry.

"When Howard Dean says he's not going to quit, what he means is the battle to restore democracy and citizen participation is long-term and he's not going to quit on that battle," Grossman told The Associated Press.

During the debate, Edwards challenged Kerry's support of trade agreements that he said have cost jobs in Wisconsin. He also poked fun at Kerry's long-winded response to a question about whether he felt partly responsible for the cost and casualties of the Iraq war after voting for it.

"That's the longest answer I ever heard to a yes-or-no question," Edwards said.

But Edwards, like the four other candidates on stage, largely focused on Bush. Edwards said the president's honesty was an issue, while Al Sharpton flatly called Bush a liar for the evidence he presented to justify the war.

"He had members of the administration say they knew where the weapons were," Sharpton said. "So we're not just talking about something passing here. We're talking about 500 lives. We're talking about billions of dollars."

Kerry avoided direct answers to questions about his shifting positions on trade, education and Bush's anti-terrorism legislation. He declined to debate the president's Vietnam-era tenure in the Air National Guard, but used the question to criticize Bush's handling of the Iraq war and refer to his own decorated service in Vietnam.

"I would say that this president regrettably has perhaps not learned some of the lessons of that period of time during which we had a very difficult war," Kerry said.

Edwards is in a slightly better position than Dean to survive a defeat Tuesday. While Dean is winless and losing credibility, Edwards won his native South Carolina and has impressed Democrats with a polished, upbeat style.

After vying in Wisconsin and its 72 delegates, the remaining candidates will focus on March 2 elections in California, New York, Ohio and seven other states. Edwards hopes Wisconsin voters will bounce Dean from the race, leaving him standing alone against Kerry as a serious contender.

The scenario presumes that Edwards would do well enough Tuesday to keep money flowing into his campaign, even as party donors and leaders rally behind Kerry. Edwards' backers say the odds are steep, and they won't rule out the possibility he'll be forced from the race this week.

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich also participated in the 90-minute debate, held at Marquette University. It was sponsored by Journal Communications, WTMJ-TV and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.