Democratic Hopefuls Court Activists in 'Virtual Town Hall'

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), offered her first opportunity to directly address many of her harshest critics within the Democratic Party about the Iraq war, fell back last night on a regular line in her presidential campaign.

"There are really two different ways to thinking about this. The first is what we can we do while President Bush is still in office. And the second is what I will do when I'm president," the 2008 presidential candidate said. "If the president won't end this war, when I'm president I will."

But if the remark was familiar, the context was not: Clinton was speaking not to a crowd in Iowa or New Hampshire but to thousands of members of an activist group who gathered at restaurants and houses around the country to watch seven Democratic presidential candidates discuss Iraq over the Web., which claims 3.2 million members, billed the prerecorded event as the first "virtual town hall." The candidates -- Sens. Clinton, Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and Barack Obama (Ill.); former senator John Edwards (N.C.); Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio); and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson-- each got 10 minutes to deliver a message and answer questions from MoveOn members.

For Clinton, the appearance meant a chance to speak to the very segment of the Democratic Party most frustrated with her refusal to repudiate her 2002 vote to authorize the war.

For the other candidates, it was a chance to appeal to online activists who, in their support of Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential campaign and Democratic candidates in the 2006 midterm elections, showed they could generate substantial sums of money and direct hordes of volunteers' energy toward a particular cause.

This election cycle, MoveOn's top priority is bringing an end to U.S. involvement in Iraq; it plans future sessions on health care and climate change. Last night, the group sent to its members a survey asking for comments on the candidates' presentations. It is to release the results tomorrow, as well as information about how to contribute to campaigns.

"It's pretty clear all the candidates want to be the 'out of Iraq' candidate," said Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn Political Action. Accordingly, although member-generated questions focused on permanent bases in Iraq, the distribution of oil revenue and other topics, each candidate was asked the same first question: "In your opinion, what is the best and fastest way to get out of Iraq?"

Edwards: "Congress should use its funding authority to force President Bush to end the war and start immediately bringing troops home from Iraq."

Biden: "The problem in Iraq is a self-sustaining cycle of sectarian violence. . . . You have to decentralize it."

Kucinich: "It begins with an understanding that the insurgency in Iraq is fueled by the United States occupation."

Richardson: "I would cast a congressional resolution deauthorizing the war."

Dodd: "We ought to start redeploying this evening. . . . We ought to begin immediately. I would not wait any longer."

Obama: "On May 1st of this year, we need to begin a phased withdrawal from Iraq with the goal of removing all combat troops by March 31st of next year."

Clinton's response was her "two different ways" line.

Most of the candidates said they would insist the current war funding legislation being debated in Washington continue to include a timetable for removing troops. Bush has vowed to veto any bill with such language.

But Clinton and Obama, the front-runners for the Democrats' nomination, would not join their rivals. "I don't think we should tell President Bush what we will do if he vetoes this legislation. We need to keep the pressure on him," Clinton said.

One of the MoveOn gatherings was held at Ben's Chili Bowl in the District, where afterward the discussion among group members focused on a desire for the most dramatic action possible to end the war.

In a few informal interviews, members said they were most impressed by Edwards. "He was very clear about getting out of the war. He was emotionally compelling," said Marcia Jansen, a D.C. resident.

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