MANCHESTER, N.H. - After months of laying equal claim as the leading voice against the war in Iraq, the eight Democratic presidential candidates fought face-to-face in a debate here Sunday to sharpen the distinctions among them - at points even casting blame over how each has handled the issue.
Most aggressive in criticizing his opponents was former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who bluntly accused Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois of following rather than leading on the question of the war, and for going “quietly to the floor of the Senate” to cast a recent vote against the Iraq spending bill rather than trumpeting their decision to do so.
Obama quickly protested that he “opposed this war from the start,” and pointed out that, as an initial supporter of the war, Edwards was “about 4 ½ years late” in laying claim to the role of leader on the issue.
Clinton defended her vote to authorize the war, which she said was based on all of the information available at the time, and she sought to play down what she said were small distinctions among the Democrats on the stage - especially compared to the Republican candidates who will debate at the same venue on Tuesday.
“We all believe that we need to try to end this war,” Clinton said. “In two nights you’re going to have the Republican candidates here. They all support the war. They all support the president. They all supported the escalation. Each of us is trying in our own way to bring the war to an end.”
But after weeks of conducting a mostly detached and indirect discussion about the war on the campaign trail, the Democratic candidates were working aggressively to more clearly distinguish themselves from one another - and, in particular, from frontrunner Clinton - on the war as well as on other key issues, most notably health care.
The nationally televised debate gave voters in New Hampshire their first in-person exposure to the full complement of Democratic candidates, in a debate that Obama and Clinton had initially shied away from joining because it isn’t among those the Democratic National Committee has sanctioned.
Their reluctance contributed to the anxiety of some New Hampshire officials, already fretting that their traditional influence as the first-in-the-nation primary may be threatened by recent decisions of other states to move their primaries up from later dates to January and February of next year.
But the top contenders not only chose to participate but also went on to wage the most vigorous face-to-face discussion so far in the primary season. All of the major Democratic candidates took part in the two-hour, commercial-free debate.
Especially aggressive throughout the discussion was Edwards, who perhaps is feeling a need to set himself apart from the crowd. A new ABC/Washington Post poll of national respondents shows the former vice presidential nominee is not making gains among voters who are leaning Democratic.
The debate echoed themes of the first Democratic debate earlier this spring, which also focused tightly on the war. The landscape has changed since then, though, with Clinton, Obama and Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut among a group of Senate Democrats who voted against a war-spending bill because provisions calling for troop withdrawal had been removed from it.
National Republicans have suggested that those votes were actually votes against the welfare of American troops in Iraq - an argument alluded to Sunday night by Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, who voted for the funding bill.
Some of the money would go for equipment that would improve the safety of American troops, he said.
“Lives are at stake,” Biden said. “I knew the right political vote, but I tell you what. Some things are worth losing elections over.”
Clinton countered that the Bush administration refuses to end the war and that it’s time for members of Congress “to say enough is enough.”
“I thought the best way to support our troops was to try to send a very strong message that they should begin to come home,” she said.
Edwards agreed with that vote by Clinton and Obama, but said the way they cast it was “the difference between leading and following.”
“They cast the right vote, and I applaud them for that,” he said. “But ... I think all of us have a responsibility to lead on these issues - not just on Iraq, but on health care, on energy, on all the other issues.”
As for Obama’s early opposition to the war, Edwards later allowed, “He was right. I was wrong” in voting to authorize the war. That quickly turned into a discussion of whether Clinton regrets her vote, which she reiterated she made after being “thoroughly briefed” on all of the arguments and information available at the time.
She said it didn’t matter that she hadn’t read a copy of an intelligence report available to members of Congress, a notion also challenged by Obama. One lawmaker cited that report specifically as one of the reasons he voted against the war, Obama said, “so obviously there was some pertinent information in there.”
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he would take a different route to ending the war, a resolution “to deauthorize the war, to move forward with a timetable, the end of this calendar year.”
In response to questions from both the panel of journalists and the audience members, candidates were making a play not only for Democratic voters but also for independents who make up the most significant number of New Hampshire voters.
Recent surveys in the state suggest that dissatisfaction with the Bush administration over the war may be driving more independents to the Democratic camp in 2008.
The back-and-forth among Edwards, Clinton and Obama continued on the topic of health care, where Edwards again picked the first fight by suggesting the plan Obama outlined last week was not “completely universal” and would leave 15 million people uncovered.
Obama quickly defended his proposal.
“John believes we have to have mandatory insurance for everyone in order to have universal health care,” Obama said. “My belief is that most families want health care, but they can’t afford it, so my emphasis is on driving down the costs.”
Then Obama said his plan would save average American families “about $1,000 a year” in health care costs - a figure that differs from the $2,500 he suggested when he presented his plan.
Clinton, meanwhile, maintained that universal coverage is possible without raising new taxes, something that triggered another subtle attack from Edwards, as he suggested that he and Obama were being more honest about the costs.
“Both of us have recognized that it’s going to cost significant money and talked about how we are going to pay for it,” Edwards said.
That prompted Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio to suggest none of the top candidates have gone far enough because the government would not run the program.
“They are talking about letting the insurance companies stay in charge,” he said.
There was even disagreement on how best to use the spouse of one of the candidates in a new Democratic administration.
Former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska said he would appoint Bill Clinton as a roving ambassador. Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico said he would make him a Middle East peace envoy.
Clinton reiterated her previous suggestion that she would make her husband a roving ambassador who would repair existing diplomatic problems.
“... My dear husband will be one of the people who will be sent around the world as a roving ambassador,” she said, “to make it very clear to the rest of the world that we’re back to a policy of reaching out ... and stopping the alienation of the rest of the world.”