NEW YORK – On the brink of a 10-state election that could doom his candidacy, John Edwards (search) shed his nice-guy approach in a debate Sunday and accused John Kerry (search) of spouting "the same old Washington talk" on critical issues like trade and deficit spending.
Edwards dismissed suggestions that he is quietly vying to be Kerry's running mate. "Oh, no! Far from it," he said, then took on Kerry in tougher-than-ever terms.
Polls show the North Carolina senator trailing in all 10 states conducting primaries or caucuses Tuesday, increasing pressure on Edwards to quickly turn the tables — or get out of the race.
Kerry, hoping to drive Edwards from the race, questioned how a fellow member of the Senate can call anybody a Washington insider. Noting that Edwards has served five years in Congress, Kerry said, "That seems to me to be Washington, D.C."
The candidates debated with two minor rivals hours after Haiti's embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) resigned and flew into exile. As the capital fell into chaos, the United States said international peacekeepers — including Americans — would be deployed soon.
Edwards agreed with that decision, but accused Bush of neglecting the nation for too long.
"He's ignored Haiti as much in the same way he's ignored much of the countries in this hemisphere," said Edwards, "The proper thing to do is for America to be part of a U.N. force to secure the country," he said.
"He's late, as usual," Kerry said of Bush. "I never would have allowed it to get out of control the way it did. This administration empowered the insurgents."
The hourlong debate, sponsored by CBS and The New York Times, came two days before "Super Tuesday," when 10 states award 1,151 delegates — more than half the 2,162 needed to secure the Democratic presidential nomination.
Edwards has virtually ceded four New England states to Kerry and stands little chance of victory in the biggest battlegrounds, New York and California, or Maryland. That leaves Georgia, Ohio, Minnesota as his targets — and polls show him trailing in those states.
Edwards hopes to score multiple victories Tuesday and keep his candidacy alive until March 9, when four Southern states hold primaries and caucuses. A sweep that week would set the stage for a showdown March 16 in Illinois.
Questioning Kerry's free-trade record, Edwards dismissed the front-runner's plan to review all trade agreements once he takes office. "The fundamental issue in this election is whether the people of this country believe that we're going to get change that originates in Washington or change that has to come from out there in the real world."
When Edwards asserted that Kerry's policies would run the country "deeper and deeper into debt," the Massachusetts senator demanded of Edwards, "He should do his homework." Kerry said his domestic policy plans will pay for themselves.
The debate touched on sensitive issues, such as gay rights, and the intangibles of politicking in a media age.
Kerry, who is often compared in an unflattering light to Edwards' smooth, upbeat campaign style, said: "Give me a living room, give me bar, give me a VFW hall, give me one-on-one — I think I can talk to anybody in this country."
Edwards, a consummate political showman whose critics say he's more style than substance, said, "I don't think this is a personality contest."
Both men reiterated their opposition to gay marriage, though they support legal rights for gays under civil unions.
"I've been to the wedding of somebody who happened to be gay," Kerry said.
Even Edwards' own supporters say the odds against him are long, the end of his campaign near.
Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe said he hoped to have a presumptive nominee in the next couple of weeks so he can begin to counter Bush's multimillion-dollar ad barrage, which begins March 4.
"We need, at some point, to be unified," he said.
Edwards received some good news before the debate, with the Cincinnati Enquirer, southwest Ohio's leading newspaper, endorsing him.
Six months before the Republican convention, and the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Kerry said the Bush administration did not do enough to prevent the strikes and has not done enough since to protect the United States.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (search), who has no chance of winning the nomination, said, "We should be taking action to make sure there are no funerals" and called for pulling troops out of Iraq. Al Sharpton (search) complained that he wasn't allowed to participate enough in the debate.