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Democratic Presidential Candidates Spar Over Iraq, Economy During Los Angeles Debate - 2004-02-27

Nominees for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination sparred over Iraq, gay marriage and the economy in a debate Thursday in Los Angeles. They also took aim at President Bush as they look toward a series of important contests Tuesday.

The debate at the University of Southern California was one of the last opportunities for Senator John Edwards to slow the momentum of fellow Senator John Kerry, who has won 18 of the 20 states primaries and caucuses held so far. Ten states, including California, will hold nominating contests March 2, known as Super Tuesday, and Mr. Edwards must register some wins to remain a contender.

As the candidates sought to differentiate themselves, they also targeted President Bush on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to the U.S. economy. John Edwards says many Americans are struggling financially.

"Twenty years ago, most of our families were saving money. They had financial security. It's all changed. Now, they're saving nothing. In fact, they're going into debt," senator Edwards said.

Senator Kerry also took aim at the president on economic issues.

"He has broken almost every promise he made, about social security, about children, about the environment, about deficits, about creating jobs. And I think those are the real issues," senator Kerry said.

The candidates also criticized Mr. Bush for endorsing the idea of amending the U.S. constitution to ban gay marriage. Thousands of same-sex couples have been granted marriage licenses in San Francisco in recent days. Mr. Edwards and Mr. Kerry both support civil unions, but oppose marriage for homosexuals, and say the matter should be left to individual states.

Activist Al Sharpton and Congressman Dennis Kucinich also took part in the debate. The candidates represent the left wing of the party and have drawn limited support in contests held so far.

However, Mr. Sharpton says they are voicing some of the same concerns that Ralph Nader expressed in the last presidential election. In 2000, Mr. Nader ran for president with the backing of the environmental Green Party, and he has announced he will run again for president this year as an independent. Al Sharpton worries that Mr. Nader will take votes away from Democratic candidate.

"We are saying many of the things he said he wanted said. He should have endorsed one of us. Let's come out with a winner and beat George Bush," Mr. Sharpton said.

For many Democrats, the key issue in the campaign is electability. Mr. Edward cites polls to show he has done well with independent voters, and says he can connect with those outside the party.

"We have to motivate our party and our party base, and all of us believe in the core Democratic values, every one of us sitting at this table," senator Edwards stressed. "But the question becomes, what do we do to attract independent voters? Because we have to get these people."

John Kerry, who has won most of the contests so far, said there is nothing in the election results to back what Mr. Edwards was saying.

The candidates will have another chance to make their points before Super Tuesday, as they debate in New York on Sunday.