Kerry and Edwards go head to head over trade

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The Independent US

Senators John Kerry and John Edwards, with new polls showing them comfortably ahead of President George Bush, clashed yesterday over free trade: fast emerging as the one significant issue separating the two remaining contenders for the Democratic nomination.

Mr Edwards, campaigning in New York ahead of the state's primary on 2 March, called trade "a moral issue" that sets him apart from Mr Kerry. "When we talk about trade, we are talking about values," he insisted, arguing that the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) and other international trade pacts had caused US jobs to haemorrhage to China and other low-wage countries.

The North Carolina senator, who finished second in Wisconsin this week, is gambling that a strong stand against Nafta will win him votes in major industrial states such as Ohio, New York and Georgia, which hold primaries on 2 March, or "Super Tuesday".He will argue that the Massachusetts senator, having voted for Nafta, bears an indirect responsibility for the flight of jobs overseas; one reason given for the stubborn refusal of the employment market in the US to improve, despite the recovery in economic output.

Mr Kerry minimised the difference between the two men yesterday, noting that, in the past, Mr Edwards had been supportive of free trade. "If he voted against Nafta, it certainly wasn't in the Senate," he remarked sardonically, pointing out that his rival only became senator in 1998.

The Massachusetts senator was also hoping to neutralise the Edwards attack with yesterday's formal endorsement by the AFL-CIO, the umbrella group for US unions and a vigorous opponent of Nafta.

Whatever their differences, the two Democrats boast an almost identical lead over a suddenly lacklustre George Bush. A new poll by CNN/Gallup said Mr Kerry would beat Mr Bush by 55 per cent to 43 per cent, and Mr Edwards would defeat the President by 54 to 44.

Republican strategists profess little outward alarm, saying that the President's lagging performance merely reflects the free publicity gained by the Democratic candidates in this primary season, when they have focused their fire on the White House, rather than each other.

But some Bush advisers are urging his campaign to start spending some of the $150m-plus (£79m) war chest amassed by the President to hit back at Democratic attacks, soon and hard. They are worried that Mr Bush will find it hard to recapture the initiative later on.

Compounding the White House's problems is an uncharacteristic string of missteps, starting with a poorly rated State of the Union speech by Mr Bush, and continuing with his limp interview on NBC's Meet the Press television programme earlier this month.