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Democratic Rivals Caution Against Swift Iraq Pullout
Outside the debate hall at Drake University in Des Moines, huge crowds of supporters gathered, waving signs in support of the candidates. In homes around the state, television viewers caught glimpses of the campaign ads now flooding the airwaves in Iowa.
The newest Democratic ad -- a somber commercial from Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) claiming that he is the only candidate with a plan to end the war in Iraq -- came up as a debate question, and it triggered a spirited back-and-forth over how best to bring U.S. troops home. It was perhaps the most in-depth discussion the candidates have had over their exit plans, and it revealed a field sharply divided, some advocating a quick withdrawal and others favoring one that takes longer and is more cautious.
Richardson has advocated withdrawing troops within six to eight months, and he pressed that view again in trying to draw distinctions with the front-runners.
"We have different positions here," said Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations. "I believe that if you leave any residual forces, then none of the peace that we are trying to bring can happen. And it's important."
Biden countered: "If we leave Iraq and we leave it in chaos, there'll be regional war. The regional war will engulf us for a generation. It'll bring in the Shia, it'll bring in the Saudis, it'll bring in the Iranians, it'll bring in the Turks."
Clinton, Edwards and Obama said in effect that they supported Biden's position, cautioning that it will be necessary to leave some troops behind to assist Iraqi forces and Iraqis who have helped Americans on the ground. "This is a massive, complicated undertaking," Clinton said.
Obama added: "There are only bad options and worse options, and we're going to have to exercise judgment in terms of how we execute this. But the thing I wish had happened was that all the people on this stage had asked these questions before they authorized us getting in."
At another point in the debate, Edwards repeated his call for Democrats to refuse lobbyists' donations, as he and Obama have done. The two in recent weeks have hammered Clinton's refusal to stop accepting lobbyist contributions. "I don't believe you can change this country without taking on very entrenched interests in Washington, including lobbyists, that stand between us and the change America needs," Edwards said. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) described the self-imposed bans on lobbyists' money as "situational ethics" and called for public financing of elections.
Former senator Mike Gravel (Alaska), who has been running last among the eight candidates in polls, again played the part of offbeat provocateur. He said Vice President Cheney "should be committed" and answered a question about personal faith by endorsing "more love between one human being and another human being."
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) used the question on faith to poke fun at the debate's focus on the three front-runners.
"George, I've been standing here for the last 45 minutes praying to God you were going to call on me," Kucinich told Stephanopoulos.