By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007
ORANGEBURG, S.C., April 26 -- Democratic presidential candidates largely set aside their differences here Thursday and presented a united front of opposition to President Bush and his Iraq policy, urging the president not to veto newly passed legislation that sets a timetable for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the conflict.
In their first debate of the 2008 campaign, the Democrats showed some disagreement over the issue of cutting off funding for the war and vied with one another to demonstrate their willingness to retaliate swiftly if the United States is attacked by terrorists.
But they found common ground in accusing Bush of making the country less safe and damaging U.S. relations abroad through foreign policy and argued that the president is ignoring the will of the American people by refusing to shift course dramatically in Iraq.
"The American people have spoken," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). "The Congress has voted, as of today, to end this war. And now we can only hope that the president will listen."
The 90-minute debate covered a wide range of issues, including health care, global climate change and the recent Supreme Court decision upholding a ban on a late term abortion procedure -- a decision critics have said could lay the foundation for overturning Roe v. Wade. Although public opinion shows support for the ban, the candidates uniformly criticized the court's decision.
The debate appeared unlikely to alter the shape of the Democratic race, which has divided along two tiers, with Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) leading in polls and fundraising and well ahead of the other major candidates: Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. All more than held their own in the debate.
As the perceived front-runner, Clinton might have been seen as the likely target for attack, but the candidates largely avoided engaging one another directly -- and the format, which was often fast-paced and moved from topic to topic, offered no easy opportunities to do so.
The closest approximation to a direct engagement came when Edwards was asked whether he was specifically talking about Clinton when he has said the country wants a leader who is willing to admit mistakes.
"I think that's a question for the conscience of anybody who voted for this war," he said. "I mean, Senator Clinton and anyone else who voted for this war has to search themselves and decide whether they believe they've voted the right way."
Clinton, who has consistently been forced to defend her vote for the war along the campaign trail, responded by saying what she has said before: "I take responsibility for my vote. Obviously, I did as good a job I could at the time. It was a sincere vote based on the information available to me. And I've said many times that, if I knew then what I now know, I would not have voted that way."
Democrats have argued over Iraq through the early part of the campaign, but as congressional Democrats have moved to challenge Bush, the candidates have found their differences narrowed. But upcoming steps in the debate between Congress and the White House could expose more disagreement, as Thursday's debate showed.
Dodd was the lone major candidate to underscore his support for eventually cutting off funding for the war -- a position echoed with even more vigor by the two most outspoken opponents of the war in the field, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) and former senator Mike Gravel (Alaska).
But if the leading candidates avoided going after one another, NBC anchor Brian Williams asked them probing questions about their own past statements and records, with Edwards quizzed about whether his campaign should have paid for $400 haircuts and about his role as a consultant to a hedge fund.
Edwards quickly agreed that having the campaign pay for the haircuts was a mistake that had been corrected, but he shifted the question to a potential conflict between his lifestyle and his advocacy of antipoverty programs. "If the question is . . . whether I live a privileged and blessed lifestyle now, the answer to that's 'yes,' " he said. "A lot of us do. But it's not where I come from. And I've not forgotten where I come from."
Obama was asked about contributions from a donor indicted for demanding kickbacks on business deals. Obama said, "I have denounced it, but I have a track record of bringing people around this new kind of politics, since I was in the state legislature."
Noting a poll showing a sizeable portion of the public holding an unfavorable view of her, moderator Williams asked Clinton why so many Republicans seemed eager to run against her.
"I take it as a perverse form of flattery, actually, that if they weren't worried, they would not be so vitriolic in their criticism of me," Clinton replied. "Because I believe that the country is ready for change."
In a lighter moment, Biden was asked about his propensity for putting his foot in his mouth and his well known verbosity. Could he assure the American people he would not embarrass the country on the international stage?
The normally voluble Biden gave a one word reply: "Yes." Then he stopped, to laughter from the audience.
The debate came hours after the Senate voted 51 to 46 for a war funding bill that includes language on withdrawing troops from Iraq, which has drawn a presidential veto threat. The candidates used the forum to denounce the war as a grave mistake.
"This war is a disaster," said Richardson. "We must end this war."
Obama argued that if Bush goes ahead with the veto Democrats should seek additional support from Republicans to override it. "When I listen to mothers and fathers all across America," he said, "they are telling me it's time to come home."
The sharpest exchanges came between Kucinich and Gravel on one side and Obama on the other. Kucinich challenged Obama for saying he would take no option off the table in dealing with Iran, saying the Illinois senator was setting the stage for war.
"I think it would be a profound mistake for us to initiate a war with Iran," Obama replied. "But, have no doubt, Iran possessing nuclear weapons will be a major threat to us and to the region."
A few minutes later Gravel picked up the attack, "Tell me, Barack, who do you want to nuke?"
"I'm not planning to nuke anybody right now, Mike, I promise," Obama said to laughter in the audience.
Thursday's debate was sponsored by the South Carolina Democratic Party and held on the campus of South Carolina State University. It was aired nationally on MSNBC.
The South Carolina State campus gained notoriety in 1968, when protests and clashes over a segregated bowling alley led state highway patrol officers to open fire on students, killing three, an incident now know as the Orangeburg Massacre.