Democrats Focus on Iraq In Contentious Second Debate

By Anne Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 4, 2007

GOFFSTOWN, N.H., June 3 -- Democratic presidential candidates clashed sharply over Iraq in the second debate of the campaign Sunday night, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) rejecting criticism from former senator John Edwards (N.C.) that they had failed to offer strong leadership to end the war.

Edwards accused Clinton and Obama of timidity during the recent debate over the war funding bill in Congress. The two senators voted against the bill, but waited until the last moment to declare their intentions.

"Others on this stage -- Chris Dodd spoke out very loudly and clearly," Edwards said of the senator from Connecticut. Then, making clear he was talking about Obama and Clinton, he added: "Others did not. Others were quiet. They went quietly to the floor of the Senate, cast the right vote. But there is a difference between leadership and legislating."

Obama shot back that Edwards, as a senator, had supported the 2002 resolution authorizing the war. "The fact is, is that I opposed this war from the start," Obama said. "So you're about 4 1/2 years late on leadership on this issue."

Clinton deflected the question, saying the real division over Iraq is between the two parties. "The differences among us are minor," she said. "The differences between us and the Republicans are major. And I don't want anybody in America to be confused."

The brisk exchange over Iraq highlighted a defining feature of the two-hour debate: It brought the top three Democratic contenders into close proximity and gave them their first real chance to joust in public. Although all eight Democratic candidates participated, debate sponsors deliberately put Clinton, Obama and Edwards next to each other, and they took much of the limelight.

Obama gave a more commanding performance Sunday night than he did during the first Democratic debate, in South Carolina in April. He stepped in to respond confidently to his colleagues, challenging their answers on Iraq and health care, the two central issues of the debate.

Clinton seemed as forceful as she was in the first debate, while Edwards played the role of the aggressor in drawing distinctions with the others. He has been doing so from a distance throughout the campaign, but on Sunday night he did not shy from calling out his rivals directly.

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico emphasized his experience at the state level, saying that as chief executive he had achieved results on health care and learned firsthand about the issues involved in immigration. Dodd, by contrast, emphasized his more than two decades in the Senate.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) showed off his expertise as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, demanding clear action on the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan and cautioning that Democrats do not now have the votes in Congress to end the war. "Ladies and gentlemen, you're going to end this war when you elect a Democratic president," he said.

But Biden defended his decision to vote for continued funding for the military in Iraq; he was the only Democrat on stage to have done so. Although he declined to criticize his colleagues, Biden said: "Look, I cannot -- as long as there is a single troop in Iraq that I know if I take action by funding them, I increase the prospect they will live or not be injured -- I cannot and will not vote no to fund them."

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio), an antiwar protest candidate, said Congress has the power to end the war. "Just say, 'No money, the war is over,' " he said.

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