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Democratic Rivals Caution Against Swift Iraq Pullout

At Drake University, from left: Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Gov. Bill Richardson, former senator Mike Gravel, former senator John Edwards, Sen. Christopher R. Dodd and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
At Drake University, from left: Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Gov. Bill Richardson, former senator Mike Gravel, former senator John Edwards, Sen. Christopher R. Dodd and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. (By Conrad Schmidt -- Bloomberg News)

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By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 20, 2007

DES MOINES, Aug. 19 -- The leading Democratic presidential contenders sounded a note of caution about a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq in a largely civil debate Sunday morning that also returned to the familiar themes of experience and electability.

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) drew fire from his rivals for his relative lack of political experience, but amid subtle digs from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson over his approach to foreign policy, he calmly took the heat.

"You know, to prepare for this debate, I rode in the bumper cars at the state fair," Obama said, drawing laughs from the audience.

It was the first major Democratic debate in Iowa and, for the contenders, perhaps the most important one as they approach Labor Day, the unofficial start of an intensive four months of campaigning until the nation's first caucuses here.

Nowhere is the nominating competition tighter. ABC moderator George Stephanopoulos opened the debate by describing a three-way tie in Iowa: 27 percent of likely caucus voters support Obama, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, and Clinton and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) both have the backing of 26 percent. Next was Richardson, at 11 percent.

Yet the overall tenor of the discussion was mild, even positive. The candidates touched on the subject of whether Clinton was too polarizing to win the general election, as outgoing White House adviser Karl Rove postulated last week and reiterated on three Sunday talk shows. They answered a question about whether prayer can prevent tragedy (at least one, Edwards, said no); another on helping small farmers and a third on what they consider the turning point in their lives (Clinton said it was the women's movement; Richardson said it was marrying his wife of 35 years).

Following up on several foreign policy disputes of the past few weeks, Stephanopoulos asked Clinton to explain an apparent contradiction: In 2006, while running for reelection to the Senate, she ruled out using nuclear force against Iran, then more recently criticized Obama for ruling out nuclear force against al-Qaeda in Pakistan.

Clinton said her remarks needed to be put "into context" -- that she was referring to a specific question about the Bush administration's efforts to build support for attacking Iran. "So I think there's a big difference, and I think it's a difference that really goes to the heart of whether we should be using hypotheticals. I mean, one thing that I agree with is we shouldn't use hypotheticals. You know, words do matter," Clinton said.

Obama replied crisply that "there was no difference" between his and Clinton's comments. And he then turned the discussion to routing out terrorism, a growing focus of his foreign policy statements.

"It is not hypothetical that al-Qaeda has established base camps in the hills between Afghanistan and Pakistan," Obama said. "No military expert would advise that we use nuclear weapons to deal with them, but we do have to deal with that problem."

Obama continued: "And so, this is part of what I think Americans get frustrated about in politics, where we have gamesmanship and we manufacture issues and controversies instead of talking about the serious problem that we have, a problem that this administration has made worse and that our invasion of Iraq has made worse, but a problem that the next president is going to have to deal with. And the American people deserve to hear what we're going to do."

Edwards chimed in with his own dig at Obama: "How about a little hope and optimism? Where did it go?"


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