By Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
DES MOINES, Dec. 4 -- One day after a new U.S. intelligence report said that Iran had halted work on its nuclear program, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) faced repeated criticism in a debate here Tuesday for supporting a Senate resolution that her rivals said encouraged saber-rattling rhetoric from President Bush toward the Middle Eastern nation.
For the second time in four days, the Democratic presidential contenders gathered for a forum in the state where voters are increasingly sharpening their focus on the choices they will face at the caucuses on Jan. 3. Clinton, losing ground to Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in Iowa, has stepped up her criticism of him in recent days.
On Tuesday, however, Clinton sparred mainly with former senator John Edwards (N.C.), who accused her of taking a step toward war when she voted in September for a resolution labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization.
The disagreement came after a new intelligence report directly contradicted assertions by administration officials about the growing nuclear threat from Iran, and produced a clear divide between Clinton and six other Democrats who debated here.
"Senator Clinton and I just have an honest disagreement about this, but a very strong disagreement. I think it's very clear that Bush and Cheney have been rattling the saber about Iran for a very long time, and I said very clearly when this vote took place on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that it was important for us to stand up to them," Edwards said.
Clinton said her vote was aimed at encouraging diplomacy and deterring the administration from using military force against the Iranians. She sharply objected to Edwards's characterization of the vote.
"I understand politics, and I understand making outlandish political charges, but this really goes way too far," Clinton said. "Having designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, we've actually seen some changes in their behavior."
But Clinton found few allies among her rivals, none of whom had joined her in support of the resolution, which easily passed the Senate in September. "There's no evidence -- none, zero -- that this declaration caused any change in action on the part of the Iranian government," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.).
In general, the debate was far less contentious than other recent clashes as the Democrats found common cause in attacking the president's approach to Iran. Only a few weeks ago Bush warned of a possible World War III if Iran were not prevented from achieving its nuclear ambitions, and the Democrats seized on the new report to spell out their differences with the administration.
Obama said that while Iran remains a threat to its neighbors, the administration needs a new policy. "It is absolutely clear that this administration and President Bush continues to not let facts get in the way of his ideology. . . .," he said. "They should have stopped the saber rattling, should have never started it. And they need, now, to aggressively move on the diplomatic front."
At the same time, Clinton took shots at both Edwards and Obama, saying they, too, had once said they believed that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons program. "You know, earlier this year, Senator Edwards told an audience in Israel that the nuclear threat from Iran was the greatest threat to our generation," Clinton said. "Back in 2004, Senator Obama told the Chicago Tribune editorial board that he would even consider nuke -- surgical strikes by missiles to take out Iran's nuclear capacity," she continued. "So there was a very broadly based belief that they were pursuing a nuclear weapon."
Obama called Clinton's remark "a little misleading" because he said he had been describing what he would do if Iran obtained weapons rather than assuming that they had. Obama was absent from the Senate vote on the Iran resolution.
Tuesday's debate was unlike any of the many other candidate forums this year. Sponsored by National Public Radio and Iowa Public Radio, the debate was not televised and did not include an audience.
The moderators, NPR's Michele Norris, Steve Inskeep and Robert Siegel, kept the two-hour event focused on three broad topics -- Iran, relations with China and immigration -- and the candidates responded accordingly with a more conversational tone that nonetheless set out differences.
And because they were out of view, the candidates had a more casual look as well. Several of the men took off their jackets when they sat down to their microphones, and some candidates took notes between their answers.
At one point, as the debate turned to the question of what steps they would ask Americans to take to send China a message that it must abide by stricter economic, environmental and safety standards, Edwards was asked whether he would put toys from China under the Christmas tree for his children this year.
"My kids will not have toys coming from China," he said.
Amid chatter from the candidates, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), whose wife and two young children have moved to Iowa to join him on the campaign trail, drew a laugh from the others with his quip: "I'm buying Iowa toys. They're going to eat Iowa food."
The debate came just as Clinton has sharpened her tone in Iowa, deciding over the weekend to begin directly challenging Obama's character and record in the face of polls here that show the Illinois senator gathering momentum and her support, particularly among women, slipping. The debate also included Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio), who repeatedly said he was the person on stage with the most consistent record of opposing Bush on national security and economic policy; and former senator Mike Gravel (Alaska). New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson skipped the debate to attend a memorial service for a Korean War veteran from Iowa whose remains Richardson had helped secure from the North Korean government.
The discussion on China produced few differences among the Democrats. They called for tougher enforcement of trade laws to force the economic relationship between the two countries onto a more level playing field. They also said the United States must put its fiscal house in order if it wants to reduce China's economic leverage.
In previous debates, there were major clashes over the question of whether illegal immigrants should be eligible for driver's licenses. In Tuesday's debate, that topic was not raised, and the candidates found themselves in general agreement on the need for comprehensive immigration policy revisions.
During the discussion on China, Clinton was asked whether as first lady she had offered her husband advice on foreign policy. "I certainly did," she said.
Then, with a rhetorical flourish, she appeared to be looking ahead to a presidency of her own: "I was deeply involved in being part of the Clinton team in the first Clinton administration."