Eight Democratic candidates argued over who was the toughest opponent of the war in Iraq as they plunged the nation into the longest presidential campaign in its history Thursday night.
The first debate of the 2008 campaign came on the same day that the Senate joined the House in voting to require the start of troop withdrawals by Oct. 1, setting Congress on the road to a showdown with President Bush, who has promised to veto the measure.
“The Congress has spoken, and now all we can hope is the president will listen,” said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
Clinton defended her initial vote to approve the U.S. invasion of Iraq, saying she did the best she could with the information she was given at the time. “If I knew then what I know now, I would not have voted that way,” she said, insisting that “the question is, what do we do now?”
“If this president does not get us out of Iraq, when I’m president I will,” she said.
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois likewise defended his votes to fund the effort in Iraq but said that should not be interpreted as support for the military campaign.
“I opposed this war from the start because I thought it would lead to the disastrous conditions that we have seen,” he said, but he said he could not vote to cut off funding for troops once they were in the field.
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate in 2004, argued that before the United States could restore its credibility in Iraq and elsewhere, it first had to repair what he called a rupture between the presidency and the American people.
“It is impossible for the United States of America to provide the stability and the leadership in the world unless first the American people trust their president,” he said.
Door could open to alternatives
The format of the debate, which was aired on MSNBC-TV and streamed live on MSNBC.com, worked against the development of an extended discussion on any one topic. The eight candidates were given one minute apiece to answer questions on a variety of topics, with tightly limited rebuttals and no opening or closing statements.
David Axelrod, senior strategist for the Obama campaign, called the event a “drive-by” and complained that it was difficult “to really have thoughtful dialogue on a lot of issues.”
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Nonetheless, the Democrats pointed to the 90-minute debate at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg as an opportunity to frame the national discussion over how to get U.S. forces out of Iraq before their Republican rivals could weigh in next week in their first debate.
For Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, the debate was a chance to set themselves apart from the pack on the war, which both have opposed almost from the beginning. A poll by NBC affiliate WIS-TV of Columbia and Communities for Quality Education found the war to be far and away the No. 1 issue for state Democrats.
Kucinich disagreed with Obama that it was reasonable for lawmakers to pay for a war if they disagreed with it.
“I think it’s inconsistent to tell the American people you oppose the war but you vote to fund it,” he said. “The Democrats have the power to end the war right now, and that’s what they should do.”
Gravel called on Congress to pass a law making it a felony to keep troops in Iraq, charging that “this war in Iraq was lost the second George W. Bush invaded Iraq under a fraudulent basis.”
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, essentially agreed, saying that “this war is a disaster; we must end this war” and that if he were president, he would withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of the calendar year.
Afterward, he told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann that he favored a congressional measure to “de-authorize” the war, even though such a move would likely face a court challenge under the War Powers Act of 1973.
The others in the debate were Sens. Joseph Biden of Delaware, who called for the United States to decentralize its control of Iraq and share the nation’s oil wealth, and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who advocated a more restrained approach of sending no more troops to Iraq.
“The policy has failed and we need a new strategy if we’re to have any hope of stabilizing Iraq,” Dodd said afterward in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.
Domestic issues in the spotlight
In the larger picture, the candidates all agreed that the war was a mistake and that it should be ended, and they sought to spend significant time examining domestic issues.
The location of the debate made that strategy essential, said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking Democrat in Republican-dominated South Carolina.
“You have a tremendous opportunity for candidates to demonstrate their connectivity to rural voters that are very, very important to Democrats now,” Clyburn said in an interview with NBC News’ David Gregory.
“This part of the country has been tough for Democratic candidates to connect with in recent years, so I think that South Carolina is a tremendous laboratory, and this debate tonight will allow people all over the country ... to get a good look at these candidates,” he said.
The debate format limited the candidates’ opportunity to draw clear distinctions on issues like health care, gun control and abortion. But Dodd was able to answer critics of his vote to approve the nomination of John Roberts, who, as chief justice, helped lead the Supreme Court’s decision last week to outlaw a late-term abortion procedure known by medical professionals as intact dilation and extraction but tarred by opponents as partial-birth abortion.
“What we did, of course, was walk away from a woman’s health,” Dodd said. “To deviate from that was a major, major setback.”
Targeted appeal to primary voters
The audiences for such appeals were dual, said Andrew Hugine Jr., president of South Carolina State, a historically black institution. Beyond the generally more liberal Democratic electorate, the candidates were mining a rich vein of votes among African-Americans, even though the question of race did not come up Thursday night.
Census figures show that African-Americans make up about 30 percent of the state’s population, but Clyburn warned against assuming that Obama, the only black candidate in the race, had their votes locked up.
“The African-American vote will be pivotal. Obama has an advantage, no question about it — color is still a very real real thing in this country,” said Clyburn, an African-American who said he was refraining from endorsing any candidate to preserve South Carolina’s high profile in the election.
But he pointed to recent polls indicating that Obama and Clinton were in a dead heat among black voters in South Carolina and added: “I don’t think he has the majority.”
Obama’s coming-out party
Obama also faced the challenge of defining himself as a national candidate, aides and advisers in most of the camps agreed.
Rick Wade, a senior adviser to the Obama campaign, acknowledged that up to now, much of Obama’s appeal could be traced to his newness on the political scene and the hope he brought to black voters. But “at the end of the day, he’s going to offer hope and change,” Wade told MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough.
Obama, who is running to lead the nation after serving but two years in the Senate, sought to cast himself as an equal with his more experienced rivals. Throughout the evening, he referred to his rivals as “Hillary,” “John,” “Dennis” and “Joe.”
The familiarity lent the proceedings an informal tone. But aside from Gravel, who consistently drew laughter with his blunt observations about his fellow candidates and the lack of time he had to answer — “I feel like a potted plant up here,” he said — the evening’s best line came from Biden.
Noting his “reputation for verbosity,” moderator Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News,” asked whether Biden had the “discipline” to speak for the United States on the world stage.
Biden’s complete answer: “Yes.”
Race tightening at the top
South Carolina Democrats scheduled the debate, the earliest ever in a U.S. presidential campaign, nine months before their presidential primary, which has been influential in recent elections.
A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Obama quickly closing the gap on Clinton, the Democratic front-runner.
In the new poll, conducted Friday through Monday, Clinton led Obama by 36 percent to 31 percent. A month ago, the same poll showed Clinton with a 40 percent-to-28 percent lead.
Edwards, a South Carolina native who won the state’s primary in 2004, also showed new momentum as he solidified his hold on third place. His support grew 5 points, from 15 percent to 20 percent.
NBC’s David Gregory and MSNBC-TV’s Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough contributed to this report from Orangeburg, S.C.