When Kerry declared he has long been in favor of putting environmental and labor protections directly in trade agreements, his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination didn't let that go by. They pointedly noted he supported agreements lacking those very measures.
So it went in the last scheduled debate of the primary season. As in previous debates, the candidates oversimplified some of their positions and left out inconvenient details. But thanks to a freewheeling format in Sunday's matchup in New York, suspect assertions by one candidate were often followed by a reality check from another.
Edwards, seeking to draw distinctions between himself and four-term Massachusetts senator, said the central issue is whether America will "get change that originates in Washington or change that has to come from out here in the real world."
"Last time I looked," Kerry said, "John ran for the United States Senate, and he's been in the Senate for the last five years. That seems to me to be Washington, D.C." Edwards represents North Carolina.
And, taking Edwards' point literally, he said change indeed will happen in Washington because that's where Congress and the White House are.
The candidates also tangled sharply on trade. Kerry insisted there are few real distinctions between what he and Edwards would do in negotiating future agreements — both want them to have environmental, labor and human rights standards missing in the North American Free Trade Agreement and in conditions underpinning the World Trade Organization.
Kerry pointed out that Edwards, in seizing on trade as a campaign issue, has played up positions that he scarcely mentioned when such deals were being negotiated.
Edwards has opposed a variety of bilateral trade agreements, but voted for giving permanent trade benefits to China — a leading source of lost U.S. manufacturing jobs. He was not in the Senate for the NAFTA vote.
Kerry, who also supported the China initiative, went on to declare: "I have also pledged for a number of years that we should have no trade agreement that does not also have labor and environmental standards contained within it."
Both Edwards and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio jumped on that.
"Senator Kerry, you knew full well that when NAFTA was passed, and when the WTO passed, that it was written specifically so as not to provide for workers' rights, human rights and environmental quality principles," Kucinich said.
"It's kind of like crying crocodile tears for workers, after millions of jobs have been lost in this country, to say, 'Well, we're going to fix it.'"
Also in the debate, the candidates accused President Bush of doing too little to stabilize Haiti until the country was on the verge of being consumed by violence. "He's late, as usual," Kerry said. "The president always makes decisions late after things have happened that could have been different had the president made a different decision earlier."
But Kerry did not have much to say about Haiti, either, in the months before the crisis exploded. He cited Haiti earlier in the campaign as an example of how "Bill Clinton placed America's might on the side of America's values" and as a U.S. military intervention that he supported.