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Iran Becomes an Issue In Democratic Contest

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's strong response to criticism of her vote on a measure involving Iran is seen as a sign that national security is a key issue among Democrats. (By Eric Thayer -- Getty Images)

Iran sprang up as a campaign issue on Sept. 26, when the Senate voted 76 to 22 for a defense authorization bill amendment sponsored by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.). The amendment not only urged the administration to label the IRGC a terrorist organization but also said that the U.S. military presence in Iraq could have a critical impact on Iran's ability to pose a threat to the entire Middle East.

Twenty-eight other Democrats supported the amendment, including eight who voted against the 2002 Iraq resolution and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), a fervent critic of Bush's Iraq policies. Only two Republicans opposed it, Sens. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the ranking minority member on the Foreign Relations Committee, and Chuck Hagel (Neb.), a frequent foreign policy critic of the White House.

In her defense, Clinton has made several points. First, that she has long been on the record opposing the use of military force against Iran and has been a co-sponsor of legislation, with Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), explicitly saying that Bush lacks the authority to use force against Iran.

Webb, however, voted against the Iran amendment, saying that it was enough to allow the administration to use force against Iran. "I think everybody knew what that vote was about," Webb said on MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews."

Durbin, who opposed the Iraq war resolution in 2002, took the opposite view in explaining why he supported the measure. "I don't think this resolution gives them a green light to do anything," he told Bloomberg Television, referring to the administration.

Clinton also said that she supported the measure only after she and other Democrats had persuaded Republicans to remove more belligerent language toward Iran.

Obama's opposition is unique among the Democratic candidates because he is on record supporting the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization. His opposition, said an adviser, is based on other sections of the measure that use Iran to justify the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq and that say it is in the national interest for the U.S. military to counter Iran in Iraq. The adviser said the amendment is worrisome because there is no stipulation noting that nothing in it authorizes military action.

One Clinton adviser called Obama's position "contrived." Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said: "There is nothing in the bill that gives George Bush any additional authority to wage war in Iran; and if Senator Obama believed that it did, he should have spoken out against it, fought against it and voted against it."

But it is Clinton who remains on the defensive. Her advisers said they have not seen erosion in her support in Iowa but moved preemptively with the mailer nonetheless. Her Democratic rivals think she took action because the issue was already causing her problems.

Whichever view is correct, Clinton's actions have elevated Iran even more as an issue in the Democratic campaign and demonstrated anew her possible vulnerabilities among dovish Democrats on national security issues.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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