WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Thursday went on the offensive against Democratic presidential contender Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, possibly signaling the end of the two candidates' hands-off policy toward each other.
In several news releases issued late Thursday and early Friday, the Kerry campaign fired back at Edwards' accusations that Kerry is soft on the trade issue, a hot topic amid the current employment situation.
"Below is John Edwards' MAJOR economic address, where he promises to reward work and create opportunity," the campaign said in a news release that included Edwards' June 17 address at Georgetown University.
"There's one thing missing from this speech: TRADE. Apparently, cracking down on unfair trade practices and promoting fair and balanced trade was not a priority to John Edwards just eight months ago. Mr. Johnny Come Lately on Trade!"
The statements come in response to Edwards' recent and constant criticism that Kerry has not fought hard enough for the American worker. Over the past several weeks, Edwards has said he opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, while Kerry voted for the 1993 legislation establishing the free trade zone. Edwards, however, was not a member of Congress when the vote went through.
The two candidates have emerged as the major contenders in the Democratic field after finishing in close first and second places in Tuesday night's Wisconsin primary. After Howard Dean's subsequent withdrawal, they will have to fight hard to set themselves apart.
Kerry stands with a clear advantage, having won 15 of the past 17 primaries and caucuses and carrying 613 delegates vs. Edwards' 192. Moreover, Kerry's pro-labor stance was bolstered Thursday by a prize endorsement from the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest trade union with more than 13 million members. Edwards' only labor endorsement to date has come from the 400,000-member Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.
Despite Kerry's overwhelming advantage, Democratic consultant Dane Strother said he believes Kerry is right to fight back against Edwards' attacks. "He can't take (the nomination) for granted. ... He recognizes he's got to finish being the nominee before he can go on to anything else," he told United Press International.
"Edward has the wind in his sails right now," he said, largely due to the positive response he's gotten to his anti-NAFTA stance, and that has given him the power to push Kerry on the issue.
But even though the two candidates inevitably will have to fight each other to gain advantage among the Democratic electorate, they will have to be careful when they venture into negative territory, argues Ruy Teixeira.
There are "constraints on them, it's a delicate thing," he told UPI. "I just don't know how far down the road they're going to take themselves."
But voters "don't want to see their candidates cutting each other up with knives. They want to see their candidates go after George W. Bush," he said. Both candidates, Teixeira said, will likely keep their eye on the party's well being in their efforts to beat Bush, just like the party's voters.
"It's just a delicate dance and we'll see how Kerry does on it," he added.
However, the Kerry campaign's efforts to point out that Edwards' focus on trade is a new component of his strategy is likely to fall on deaf ears, Strother told UPI.
"Nah, nobody cares about that, that's process. He's talking about it now and so is Kerry."