By Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 3, 2007 2:50 PM
GOFFSTOWN, N.H., June 3-- The Democratic presidential candidates meet here Sunday night for their second debate of the young campaign season, with Iraq and health care likely to dominate much of the discussion.
The two-hour session on the campus of St. Anselm College just outside Manchester will include questions from journalists and from New Hampshire voters -- Democrats and independents alike. CNN, which is co-sponsoring the debate along with WMUR-TV and the Manchester Union Leader, will air the debate nationally, beginning at 7 p.m.
Republicans will debate here on Tuesday night under the same format.
Much of the focus Sunday night will be on the three leading candidates -- New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina senator John Edwards, and the organizers made sure that the three will be at standing next to one another when the debate opens.
But if there are any fireworks, they could be sparked by some candidates like Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson or Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., who are seeking to persuade party activists, ere and in other states with early primaries and caucuses, that they deserve a closer look and more support.
Two other Democrats -- Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich and former Alaska senator Mike Gravel -- will also participate and in the first debate in April, they staked out the left flank on the major issues, but particularly on ending U.S. involvement in Iraq immediately.
Among the leading candidates, Obama may feel the most pressure. His performance in the South Carolina debate in April had some rocky moments and by his own admission -- which he wrote about in his best-selling book, "The Audacity of Hope" -- he was never comfortable in his debates against Republican rival Alan Keyes during the 2004 Senate race in Illinois.
Strategists for the candidates played down the significance of any of the early debates as they made preparations for Sunday night's encounter, suggesting that there is little that can be gained when there are so many candidates on stage at the same time. Their hope is to avoid mistakes and get back to the main priority at this point in the election cycle, which is continuing to raise money, expand their organizations here and in other states.
The first debate did little to alter the overall shape of the Democratic race. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday showed Clinton leading the field with 42 percent of the vote, Obama second at 27 and Edwards third at 11. None of the other candidates received more than 2 percent.
When former Vice President Al Gore is added to the mix, the results are: Clinton 35, Obama 23, Gore 17 and Edwards 7. That ties Gore's highest percentage in a Post-ABC News poll this year. In contrast, Edwards hit a low point for the year in the new poll.
Many strategists argue that national polls will become less and less important as the primary season nears later in the year, eclipsed by the candidates' standing in polls of the early states.
In the most recent poll of New Hampshire voters, Clinton held a wide lead over her rivals. The poll, conducted by the American Research Group, showed Clinton with 34 percent, Edwards at 18, Obama at 15 and Richardson at 9 percent.
A poll by Zogby International showed a much different race in the state. Clinton led with 28 percent, followed by Obama at 26 percent, Edwards at 15 percent and Richardson at 10 percent.
New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, in a recent interview, called the Democratic race wide open. "Anything can happen in the next eight months," he said.
Lynch said much of the focus has gone toward Clinton and Obama, while Edwards is "still looking to carve out his own niche" in the state. Richardson, he added, has made progress through personal campaign skills and with self-deprecating television ads.
Dodd also recently began airing ads in New Hampshire and Iowa, challenging his rivals on Iraq, which his advisers believe may help him to gain some traction in the states that will kick off the nomination battle.
The candidates have been told to expect Iraq to consume a considerable portion of Sunday night's debate. Edwards, Richardson and Dodd have pressed hardest for a quick conclusion to the U.S. mission there, attempting to differentiate themselves from Clinton and Obama.
When the Senate recently approved a supplemental funding bill for Iraq that did not included a timetable for the start of troop withdrawals, Clinton and Obama were among a minority of 14 senators who voted against it. Biden was the only presidential candidate to support the bill.
Neither Clinton nor Obama had voted against an Iraq funding bill until that point and their votes underscored the pressure they feel from party activists in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere to challenge President Bush to begin bringing troops home. The votes also showed again how determined Clinton and Obama not to let the other gain an advantage with antiwar activists.
Their votes could have consequences in a general election, if either becomes the Democratic nominee, but their focus now is on building support for the nomination contest.
The candidates will be debating in a state that turned bright blue in last November's midterm elections. Fueled by antiwar anger and energy, Democrats captured two Republican-held congressional seats and took control of the state legislature for the first time in more than a century. Lynch, the most popular politician in the state, was reelected in a landslide.
Iraq will consume a considerable portion of the first hour of the debate when the questions will come from CNN's Wolf Blitzer, WMUR's Scott Spradling and the Union Leader's Tom Fahey. The second hour will feature questions from New Hampshire voters.
Health care is also likely to provide points of difference. Obama laid out his health-care plan last week. Edwards offered his plan much earlier, and Clinton had put some of her ideas on the table as well. All point toward universal coverage as their goal but differ in how rapidly and dramatically they would move to get there.