As the seven Democratic candidates inched closer to the new round of primaries next Tuesday, they all vowed during a debate in South Carolina that they can and must compete successfully against President Bush this fall in the South.

The party has "never elected a Democratic president without winning at least five Southern states," said Sen. John Edwards (search), a first-term senator from North Carolina speaking during Thursday's debate.

Sen. John Kerry (search) of Massachusetts, currently the campaign front-runner, said, "People in the South care about their jobs, they care about health care, they care about safety, they care about their children, and I intend to campaign on mainstream American values."

Howard Dean (search) challenged Kerry's effectiveness as a senator, contending that in nearly two decades, "not one" of 11 health care bills introduced by Kerry has passed Congress.

Kerry retorted that he'd helped pass a lot -- family medical leave, Agent Orange (search) benefits for veterans, and a new program of children's health care that aids youngsters in Dean's state of Vermont.

"One of the things you need to know as president is how things work in Congress if you want to get things done," he said. He added that legislation written by one lawmaker often passes on a bill carrying the name of another.

The exchange, two-thirds of the way through a 90-minute debate, underscored the new order of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Preparing for the Next Round of Votes

Kerry walked onto the debate stage as the undisputed front-runner and logical target for his rivals following victories in the Iowa caucuses (search) and New Hampshire primary (search) in less than two weeks. That left Dean, who switched campaign managers on Wednesday, to play the role of aggressor as he tries to fix a candidacy in peril.

In all, 269 delegates will be at stake on Tuesday in primaries in Missouri, Arizona, Delaware, Oklahoma and South Carolina, plus caucuses in North Dakota and New Mexico.

In the heart of Dixie, the Democrats insisted their party can compete successfully across the South against Bush, citing a loss of jobs, questions about postwar Iraq and administration trade policies as evidence.

"A president has to be able to walk and chew chewing gum at the same time," Edwards said, arguing that Bush has concentrated on the war on terrorism at the expense of domestic needs.

Edwards, Kerry and Dean called for an independent commission to investigate faulty prewar intelligence that Bush relied on in claiming that Saddam Hussein (search) had weapons of mass destruction. David Kay (search), the former chief of the U.S. effort to locate weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, told Congress this week that after a "sufficiently intense" search, he believes there are none.

Kerry and Dean also raised questions about Vice President Dick Cheney's (search) involvement in the intelligence the president used to go to war. Dean said Cheney went to the CIA (search), where he berated midlevel analysts because their reports on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction weren't strong enough.

Kerry said there were "very legitimate questions about what the vice president of the United States was doing at the CIA."

For some of the seven men on stage, the debate was possibly the last of the campaign. Edwards has said South Carolina's primary is a must-win contest for him, and Sen. Joe Lieberman overrode the advice of some advisers this week when he decided to remain in the race after a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire.

Given the stakes, much of the 90-minute event seemed serenely polite, and moderator Tom Brokaw said after one break that Dean had told him the evening was a mellow one.

Apart from Bill Clinton (search), Democratic presidential candidates have struggled mightily in the South in recent elections. Bush, the former governor of Texas, is counting on the region to provide a foundation in his re-election campaign.

But Democrats said they can take him on.

Kerry, attacked twice in recent days by Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie as a Northeastern liberal, said he intended to campaign on "mainstream values."

Lieberman, of Connecticut, said he was the type of Democrat who can compete in the South, "moderate, strong on defense, strong on civil rights."

Al Sharpton (search), the only black contender in the race, said he could bring new voters to the polls for the Democrats. "I'm the son of a man who couldn't be a mill worker because of the color of his skin but his son could be president of the United States," he said.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark stressed his credentials as non-politician.

"I'm not a career politician, I'm not a Washington insider. I'm an outsider and I'm running this race as someone who has spent his life in leadership," he said.

South Carolina's primary on Tuesday marks the first Southern state election, and the first one expected to draw heavy participation by black voters.

Racial politics aside, the state has lost thousands of textile jobs in the wake of NAFTA and a trade agreement with China, and Bush's rivals accused him of failing to require trading partners to live up to their terms.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio said NAFTA should be repealed, a position that put him at odds with the others on the debate stage.

Edwards used the question to stress his roots as the son of a South Carolina textile worker. "We need to start by recognizing the pain, and not just the economic pain, that these families are in ... This is personal to me," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.