By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 4/25/2007 5:05:11 PM ET 2007-04-25T21:05:11

Heading into Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate, the Democratic candidates actually agree on most of the issues, but that likely won’t stop the drama.

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There’s one thing you can safely say about the early presidential contest: It hasn’t been boring.

Much of the drama, intrigue and bickering has occurred on the Democratic side: intramural squabbling over the 2002 Iraq war authorization vote; a tiff over David Geffen’s remarks about Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.; the money race between Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.; or the revelation that Elizabeth Edwards’ cancer has returned.

But with the first Democratic debate set for Thursday – moderated by NBC’s Brian Williams, broadcast live on MSNBC, and streamed live here on MSNBC.com – these mini-dramas have obscured an interesting fact about the Democratic contest.

The candidates actually agree on nearly all of the major issues:

  • They all support abortion rights.
  • They all want to end the federal restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research.
  • They all favor enacting comprehensive immigration reform.
  • They all want universal health-care coverage.
  • And, with just one exception, they all oppose gay marriage but support civil unions.

Even when it comes to Iraq, a subject that has sparked much of the early infighting, there isn’t a Joe Lieberman in the bunch: they all believe that Bush’s troop increase is a mistake, that American troops need to come home as soon as possible, and that the war in Iraq has been a diversion in the broader fight against terrorism. Indeed, according to an analysis by the Talking Points Memo news blog, Clinton and Obama have cast identical votes on Iraq in all but one instance since Obama joined the Senate.

Tom Matzzie, the Washington director of the antiwar group MoveOn.org, also has noticed their similarities on the war. “They are working hard for the voters who want to get out of Iraq.”

GOP divisions
On the other hand, the Republican presidential hopefuls – who will square off next week in another debate – split on some of these issues.

For example, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee all support comprehensive immigration reform (although McCain seems to have shifted his stance somewhat by embracing the idea of sending illegal immigrants back to their home countries before they apply for citizenship). Others, most notably Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., oppose the idea.

In addition, Giuliani and McCain favor expanding embryonic stem-cell research, while other GOP contenders, including Brownback and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, oppose it.

Even an issue such as free trade, which most Republicans traditionally back, has detractors in Tancredo and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.

And there isn’t complete GOP unanimity on Iraq – even though the major candidates (Giuliani, McCain, and Romney) support Bush’s troop increase, oppose any timetable for withdrawal, and believe it’s the central front in the war on terror.

For instance, Brownback, Tancredo, and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, all disagreed with the so-called troop surge, and Paul even voted against the 2002 war authorization. Furthermore, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson believes the Iraqi government should vote on whether it wants U.S. troops to remain in the country; if it doesn’t, he says, Americans should leave.

Differences in style and message
But this doesn’t mean that Thursday’s Democratic debate, compared with next week’s Republican one, will be lacking conflict and drama.

While the Democrats agree on many of the issues, they differ on something that might even produce more sparks – what they stand for.

“I think it’s mainly about style. In some respects, it’s about electability… [And] it’s about enthusiasm,” non-partisan political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says about what he thinks are the differences among the Democratic candidates.

It's also about message, Rothenberg adds. Obama, for one, says he represents change and a hope for a new kind of politics. “I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington,” he stated at his presidential announcement in February. “But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.”

For Clinton, it's her experience, dependability – and even her husband’s past political success.

“You and I know there is another kind of experience that we're going to need in 2008. I know a thing or two about winning campaigns. And when our party and our candidates are attacked, we have got to stand up and fight back,” she told Democrats back in February. “I know how they think, how they act and how to defeat them. And if you give me the chance, that's exactly what we will do together in 2008.”

Former Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, meanwhile, is the economic populist (and reformed Iraq war opponent) that would appeal to the Democratic base. And Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson all offer vast experience in foreign affairs.

Contrasts at the margins
That said, these Democrats do disagree on some issues, even if it's at the margins.

For instance, while they all support universal health care, Edwards would pay for it by rolling back Bush's tax cuts for those making more than $200,000 a year. But Clinton and Richardson oppose that, while Obama hasn't taken a firm position.

On other domestic issues, Richardson is the only Democratic candidate who generally opposes gun-control measures, and Kucinich is the only one who supports gay marriage.

On Iraq, Biden proposes dividing Iraq into three autonomous regions (each dominated by Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds). Clinton opposes setting a firm timetable for withdrawal, but voted for legislation that contained a withdrawal goal of March 2008. Dodd supports the Feingold-Reid bill that would cut off most funding for the war by March 2008.

Edwards wants to immediately withdraw 40,000 to 50,000 troops from Iraq. Obama has introduced legislation that would begin bringing home soldiers this May, with the goal of removing all combat troops from there by March 2008. Richardson favors withdrawing U.S. forces by the end of the year, coupled with aggressive diplomacy in the Middle East region. And former Sen. Mike Gravel, D-Alaska, says he wants U.S. troops to come now. “Not six months from now, not a year – now.”

And on that nearly five-year-old Iraq war authorization, Biden, Clinton, Dodd, and Edwards voted yes, although Edwards has apologized profusely for it, while Clinton – adamantly – hasn’t. Rep. Kucinich, D-Ohio, voted no, and Obama is on the record opposing it when he was an Illinois state senator.

Edwards, in fact, has made his apology a key contrast with his rivals who voted for the authorization, especially Clinton. “We need a leader,” he has said, “who will be open and honest with you and with the American people, who will tell the truth … [and] who will take responsibility when they've made a mistake.”

So whether it’s their differing messages, styles or views, there’s the potential for some impressive fireworks at Thursday’s Democratic debate – even though the candidates actually agree on most of the issues.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.
NBC’s Lauren Appelbaum and Andrew Merten contributed to this article.  

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