Democratic Rivals Press Clinton, Courteously

By Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 27, 2007

HANOVER, N.H., Sept. 26 -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton found herself on the defensive here Wednesday night in a debate in which the Democratic presidential candidates clashed over withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, the financial future of Social Security and Iran's nuclear threat.

The two-hour debate features clear differences but few fireworks. Clinton (N.Y.), the front-runner for the nomination, drew steady criticism, but her seven rivals couched their disagreements with respect rather than scorn or sharp words.

The debate came at a moment in the campaign when Clinton has solidified her position as the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination, putting pressure on her opponents to slow her momentum. A new poll in New Hampshire released Tuesday showed Clinton expanding her lead in the Granite State, although the race in Iowa, which will start the nominating process in January, is far more competitive.

After turning in a series of winning performances in previous debates, Clinton appeared less dominant on Wednesday. Her potential vulnerabilities were highlighted either through questions from moderator Tim Russert of NBC News or from responses from her opponents.

Russert pressed her to explain why she would be a good president after failing to win support for health-care reform during her husband's administration and after voting in 2002 to give President Bush authorization to launch a war that is now deeply unpopular.

Clinton defended her efforts to pass health-care reform, saying she had fought a sometimes-lonely battle against special interest forces. But she acknowledged that her new plan for universal care is one crafted from the lessons of that effort.

"There is so much that has happened that people can see with their own eyes now that I believe that we finally have a consensus to do what we should do," she said. But Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware questioned whether she could get the job done, saying Republicans will be more reluctant to compromise with Clinton than with other Democrats.

"I'm not suggesting it's Hillary's fault," he said. "I think it's a reality that it's more difficult, because there's a lot of very good things that come with all the great things that President Clinton did, but there's also a lot of the old stuff that comes back. It's kind of hard."

Sensing some unease over what he had said, Biden quickly added, "When I say old stuff, I'm referring to policy -- policy."

Russert opened the debate by asking Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) -- all of whom have supported a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, whether they would promise to have all the troops out by January 2013. All three declined to do so.

"We would get combat troops out of Iraq," Obama said. "The only troops that would remain would be those that have to protect U.S. bases and U.S. civilians, as well as to engage in counterterrorism activities in Iraq."

Clinton agreed. "I will drastically reduce our presence there to the mission of protecting our embassy, protecting our civilians," she said, "and making sure that we're carrying out counterterrorism activities there."

Edwards, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the Congress for failing to do more to stop the war, also declined to take the pledge. But he quickly turned the question into a criticism of Clinton, saying she would continue some combat operations long after most troops are out and he would not.

"To me, that's a continuation of the war," he said. "I do not think we should continue combat missions in Iraq."

Clinton sought to clarify her position, saying those combat missions would be aimed at eradicating al-Qaeda in Iraq, but Edwards said, "I believe this war needs to come to an end."

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he would bring out all the troops within a year, saying "you cannot start the reconciliation of Iraq" before U.S. forces are out and pointedly disagreed with Clinton and Obama.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) said he would "get it done" in his first term, while Biden said he would bring them all home only if there were political reconciliation. If not, he said, American troops should be removed "because they're just fodder."

One of the sharpest exchanges came over a vote in the Senate on Wednesday on a resolution urging President Bush to designate the Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group. Clinton supported the measure, Biden and Dodd opposed it. Obama did not vote.

"I am ashamed of you, Hillary, for voting for it," said former senator Mike Gravel of Alaska.

When Clinton defended the vote as something that could lead to sanctions against a group responsible for manufacturing weapons that are being used against U.S. forces in Iraq. But Edwards challenged her for that vote.

"I voted for this war in Iraq, and I was wrong to vote for this war," he said. "And I accept responsibility for that. Senator Clinton also voted for this war. We learned a very different lesson from that. I have no intention of giving George Bush the authority to take the first step on a road to war with Iran."

As the debate turned to domestic policy, the candidates debated how to make the Social Security system solvent. Clinton refused to point to specific remedies -- such as raising above $97,500 the amount of income that is taxed for Social Security, or raising the age that seniors begin drawing benefits -- and instead called for the federal government to return to the "fiscal responsibility" of her husband's administration.

"I think it's important that you cannot give away what you're going to be negotiating over when it comes to Social Security until you make it clear that fiscal responsibility has got to be the premise of the negotiation," Clinton said, saying that outlining where she would be willing to compromise would be akin to "negotiating with yourself."

But Obama said he would put all solutions on the table and that raising the cap on payroll taxes would be his preferred solution. And other candidates concurred. Edwards, striking a note of outrage, said he would tax upper-income earners -- people making above $200,000 a year -- on all of their paychecks, while protecting workers who earn between $97,000 and $200,000 from additional payroll taxes. Biden warned voters that few politicians would be honest about the hard choices ahead. "You're either going to cut benefits or you're going to go ahead and raise taxes," Biden said.

In perhaps the most awkward moment of the debate, Russert asked Clinton whether she would allow an exception to the ban on torture in order to gain knowledge from a terrorist such as Osama bin Laden. She said she would not. "As a matter of policy, it cannot be American policy, period," she said.

Russert informed her that it was her husband -- "William Jefferson Clinton," he said gravely -- who had offered up that very scenario a year earlier. Clinton stopped and paused. Then, she said: "Well, he's not standing here right now." Pressed by Russert on whether the couple has a difference on this issue, Clinton said with a wry smile, "Well, I'll talk to him later."

Wednesday night's debate was held on the campus of Dartmouth College and was one of six candidate forums sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) also participated in the debate, which was aired on MSNBC.

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