Los Angeles Democratic rivals John Kerry and John Edwards differed on the use of the death penalty Thursday night but found common ground in opposing gay marriage in a debate five days before the biggest primary night of the campaign season.
Confronted with a question about a child killer, Kerry said his instinct "is to want to strangle that person with my own hands." But the Massachusetts senator, a former prosecutor, quickly added that he favors the death penalty only for cases of terrorism.
Edwards, a Southern-bred politician, differed, saying there are other crimes that "deserve the ultimate punishment." He cited as an example the killers of James Byrd, a black man who was dragged to death from a pickup truck in 1998 in Texas.
On the day that celebrity Rosie O'Donnell was married to her longtime girlfriend, both presidential hopefuls voiced opposition to gay marriages. At the same time, they said the issue should be left to the states and criticized President Bush for calling for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex unions.
Kerry said Bush was "trying to divide America," describing him as a president who "always tries to create a cultural war and seek the lowest common denominator."
"This president is talking ... about amending the Constitution for a problem that does not exist," Edwards said.
The two men also sparred about campaign donations from lobbyists and trade as they debated at close quarters before Tuesday's 10-state slate of contests known as Super Tuesday. Together, next week's primaries and caucuses -- stretching from New England to California -- offer 1,151 delegates. Kerry hopes to wrap up the nomination that night, while Edwards is looking for a comeback.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Al Sharpton also had seats at the debate table, unwilling to leave the race despite an unbroken string of primary and caucus defeats.
Kerry, the front-runner by far, entered the debate with 686 delegates in The Associated Press count, compared with 206 for Edwards, with 2,162 needed to clinch the nomination.