Democrats attack Bush on Iraq in debate
By Andrew Ward in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: April 27 2007 07:36 | Last updated: April 27 2007 07:36
All eight Democratic presidential hopefuls competed to strike the strongest opposition to the war in Iraq on Thursday evening as they held the first debate of what promises to be the longest presidential election campaign in US history.
The 90-minute event at South Carolina State University came more than eight months before the first primary elections and 18 months before the general election in November 2008.
Campaigning has started unusually early because the election is considered the most open in decades, with President George W. Bush required to step down after two terms in office and Vice-President Dick Cheney having ruled himself out.
There were no serious flashpoints among the Democratic rivals and all three leading candidates – Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards – produced solid performances with no glaring gaffes.
Mr Edwards, the former Senator and defeated vice-presidential candidate in 2004, highlighted Senator Clinton’s failure to renounce her vote for the war in Iraq by saying members of Congress who backed the invasion should “search their conscience”.
Ms Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, said she would not have voted for the war had she known then what she knows now and vowed to end the war if elected president.
“If this president does not get us out of Iraq, when I’m president I will,” she said. “We have given the Iraqi people the chance to have freedom, to have their own country. It is up to them to decide whether or not they're going to take that chance."
Hopes are running high among Democrats that the party can reclaim the White House as the turmoil in Iraq sours public opinion towards Mr Bush’s Republican party.
Thursday’s debate came hours after the Senate joined the House of Representatives in voting to impose a timetable for US withdrawal from Iraq – the strongest challenge to presidential authority since the Democrats took control of Capitol Hill in January. Mr Bush has promised to veto the bill.
Mr Obama, Senator for Illinois, highlighted that he had opposed the war from the outset but said it would be wrong for Congress to cut off funding for the troops, as some Democratic activists favour.
Most analysts judged Ms Clinton to have been the most polished candidate and some felt Mr Obama, known for his sparkling oratory, was less fluent than usual.
He gave a particularly hesitant answer to a question about how he would respond to a terrorist attack, prompting him to clarify his response later in the debate with a more robust statement about his willingness to take military action when justified.
Discussion of serious issues such as Iraq, healthcare and gun control was interspersed with lighter moments, including a question to Mr Edwards about his recent $400 haircut, paid out of campaign funds. "That was a mistake, which we remedied," he said, before telling a story about his humble roots as the son of a textile mill worker. "I've not forgotten where I came from," he added.
Some spice was injected to the largely bland proceedings by Mike Gravel, a former Senator, who aimed a series of barbed quips at his better-known rivals.
"Some of these people frighten me, they frighten me,” he said, referring to the refusal by Mr Obama and others to rule out military action against Iran.
The other candidates are Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico, Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Congressman, and Senators Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut.
An opinion poll released this week showed Mr Obama closing the gap on Ms Clinton. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of likely Democratic voters found that Ms Clinton’s support had fallen to 36 per cent, from 40 per cent a month ago, while Mr Obama’s had risen from 28 per cent to 31 per cent. Mr Edwards also saw his support rise from 15 per cent to 20 per cent.