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?"
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.