Democratic Rivals Press Clinton, Courteously

Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 27, 2007; Page A01

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.

Democratic presidential hopefuls from left, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., former Sen. Mike Gravel, D-Alaska arrive on stage for a debate at Dartmouth College Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2007, Hanover, N.H. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes) (Bill Sikes - AP)

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."

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