John Kerry (search) accused President Bush of repeating Vietnam-era mistakes in Iraq and pledged on Sunday to combat Republican attacks while rivals Howard Dean (search) and John Edwards (search) faced pressure to cede the nomination to the Democratic front-runner.
Looking ahead to a matchup with President Bush, Kerry said during a Wisconsin debate, "I'm prepared to stand up to any attack they come at me with. I'm ready for what they throw at me."
Edwards replied, "Not so fast, John Kerry."
Resisting Kerry's suggestion that the nomination fight was ending, Edwards said, "We're going to have an election here in Wisconsin this Tuesday and we 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."
Dean tried to sound just as confident, calling Kerry "a fine person. And if he wins the nomination, I'm going to support him. But I intend to win the nomination."
Kerry leads Dean, Edwards and two other Democrats in Wisconsin, where Democrats hold a critical primary Tuesday. The Massachusetts senator, victor in 14 of 16 contests, hopes to force his major foes from the race with another overwhelming victory.
Dean's own advisers are urging him to abandon the fight if he loses Tuesday and predicted that he soon would.
"We are not bowing out," Dean told The Associated Press before the debate. But campaign chairman Steve Grossman said that with a loss Tuesday, Dean would 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 AP.
The 90-minute debate, perhaps the last of the primary season, ended without Kerry stumbling or taking heavy flak from Dean and Edwards. They may not get another shot.
Uncharacteristically, Dean pulled his punches in the debate — passing up an opportunity to repeat his criticism of Kerry for accepting special interest money. Instead, the fallen front-runner seemed to defend Kerry against criticism from the White House.
"I think George Bush has some nerve attacking anybody on special interests," Dean said, though he added that both parties kowtow to special interests.
Even on the war in Iraq, the issue that divides Dean most deeply from Kerry, the former Vermont governor was more polite than pugilistic. "Any of us who support sending troops, have a responsibility for what happens to those troops," he said, noting that Edwards and Kerry backed Bush's war resolution.
"My regret is not the vote," Kerry said. "My regret is this president choosing the wrong way, rushing to war."
A week after raising questions about Bush's Vietnam-era service in the National Guard, the four-term senator and decorated Vietnam veteran refused to comment on the controversy. But Kerry said, "I would say that this president, regrettably, has perhaps not learned some of the lessons of that period of time, when we had a very difficult war."
On Iraq, he repeated, "I think this president rushed to war."
Kerry avoided direct answers to questions about his shifting positions on trade, education and Bush's anti-terrorism legislation.
Edwards made light of the front-runner's long-winded style. "That's the longest answer I've ever heard to a yes-or-no question," he said after Kerry's remarks on Iraq.
Edwards landed glancing blows against Kerry on trade, health care and the budget, but focused his heaviest attack on Bush. "Certainly, the integrity and character of the president of the United States is at issue," he said.
Edwards, a freshman senator from North Carolina, is in a slightly better position than Dean to survive a defeat Tuesday. While Dean is winless and running out of credibility, Edwards won his native South Carolina and has impressed Democrats with his polished, upbeat style.
After 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.
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. The trial lawyer's backers say the odds are steep, and they won't rule out the possibility that Edwards will be forced from the race this week.
Republicans kept working on the assumption that Kerry would face Bush. Before the debate, GOP chairman Ed Gillespie accused Kerry of hypocrisy for voting in favor of Bush's education and Iraq policies then railing against them as a candidate.
Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton, neither with a hope of winning the nomination, also participated in the debate.
The debate was held at Marquette University in Milwaukee. It was sponsored by Journal Communications, WTMJ-TV and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.