John Kerry accused President Bush of repeating Vietnam-era
mistakes in Iraq and pledged yesterday to combat Republican attacks
while rivals Howard Dean and John Edwards faced pressure to cede
the nomination to the Democratic front-runner.

Looking ahead to a matchup with President Bush, Kerry said,
“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, “No 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 tomorrow. 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 tomorrow 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 tomorrow, 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.”

The debate, held at Marquette University in Milwaukee, was
sponsored by Journal Communications, WTMJ-TV and the Milwaukee
Journal Sentinel.

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