By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 10/31/2007 8:33:59 AM ET 2007-10-31T12:33:59

Sen. Hillary Clinton’s vote to authorize the U.S. war in Iraq again came under attack, but her major rivals indicated at Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate that the party’s focus in foreign affairs could be shifting to a potential showdown with Iran.

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While Clinton continued to separate herself from opponents who have called for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq — saying, “I stand for ending the war in Iraq and bringing our troops home, but I also understand that it’s going to take time” — former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina zeroed in on Clinton’s vote for a congressional resolution that declared Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.

That vote, he said, cleared the way for President Bush to invade Iran.

“I mean, has anybody read this thing?” Edwards asked. “I mean, it literally gave Bush and Cheney exactly what they wanted.”

The contention over the Iran resolution was the sharpest disagreement in a debate that saw Clinton, D-N.Y., come under a gang assault from a field of rivals hoping to chip away at her commanding lead in national polls.

Clinton, Edwards and most of the other major Democratic contenders gathered in Philadelphia for the debate, which was telecast on MSNBC.

Also on stage at Drexel University were Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. NBC News and the Democratic National Committee excluded former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska on grounds that he did not meet fundraising and polling thresholds.

Clinton: We can’t do nothing
Clinton defended her vote on the Iran resolution, saying that it was important to pursue a “diplomatic front” but that in the face of belligerence from Tehran, “we shouldn’t be doing nothing.”

Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said he would be willing to talk with Iran, claiming to have been the only candidate on the stage to have negotiated with a foreign power, which drew objections from Biden and Dodd.

“I believe it’s critical that if we’re going to resolve the situation in the Middle East, if we’re going to get Iraq to stop Iran’s helping terrorists, we have to engage them vigorously, potentially also with sanctions,” Richardson said, adding that it was important to involve Russia and Washington’s European allies.

Kucinich, whose campaign is founded on opposition to the Iraq war, said flatly that “we need to adamantly reject any kind of a move toward war with Iran” and criticized Clinton’s vote for the Iran resolution.

“When you say all options are on the table, you give license to President Bush,” Kucinich said. “The war in Iraq is illegal. Even planning for the war against Iran is illegal.”

But Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, raised a different specter, saying that while Iran was an important concern, the deterioration of “an out-of control Pakistan” was a bigger threat.

“The fact of the matter is, the Iranians may get 2.6 kilograms of highly enriched uranium,” he said.  “But the Pakistanis have hundreds — thousands — of kilograms of highly enriched uranium.”

Clinton’s honesty under fire
As Clinton’s lead in national polls grows to double digits, Obama has made no secret of his intention to turn up the heat on her, a decision that met with favor from Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

“Senator Obama needs a performance where the media and the national press say, ‘Boy, he showed some strength; he made some points; he looked like a leader,’” Rendell told NBC News. “Right now, the buzz from the debates is here’s an exceptionally charismatic, bright guy, but he’s not ready for prime time.”

Advisers to Obama told NBC News that Obama reviewed tapes of Bill Clinton’s debate performances in his victorious 1992 campaign for clues to how to ratchet up his attacks on the senator without sacrificing his likability.

Looking to strike a balance, Obama took the first shot Tuesday night, but only after complaining that reports of an anti-Clinton festival were greatly exaggerated.

“Some of this stuff gets overhyped,” Obama said, but that was quickly followed by an accusation that Clinton was “changing positions whenever it’s politically convenient.”

“Now, that may be politically savvy, but I don’t think that it offers the clear contrast that we need,” he said.

Edwards was more blunt than Obama, citing what he said were Clinton’s shifting positions on the war in Iraq and Social Security.

“I think the American people, given this historic moment in our country’s history, deserve a president of the United States that they know will tell them the truth and won’t say one thing one time and something different at a different time,” he told Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington bureau chief.

Asked whether he stood by his characterization of Clinton’s rhetoric as “doubletalk,” Edwards replied firmly, “I do.”

After every attack, Clinton resolutely refused to respond in kind. Time after time, she ignored the barbs and returned to her platform, turning Edwards’ “doubletalk” charge into an opportunity to reiterate her support for overhauling the health care system and fighting “special interests” in Washington.

Clinton stumbles on immigration
Iraq and Iran provided the main clashes Tuesday nights, as the candidates generally agreed on strategies to bring down energy costs, improve education, make health care affordable and relieve the middle-class tax burden.

Dodd strayed most from the other candidates, disagreeing with their call for a massive move to alternative energy technologies. “Consumers are not going to be in a position where they can afford the more expensive fuels, the alternative fuels and technologies,” he said, instead urging a so-called corporate carbon tax, which would raise taxes on companies the more they pollute the environment.

Dodd also was the only candidate who raised his hand when Brian Williams, managing editor and anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” asked whether anyone believed illegal immigrants should not have driver’s licenses. “This is a privilege, not a right,” he said.

Clinton may have given her opponents an opening to bear down on their “doubletalk” attack. In a convoluted answer to the same question, Clinton first said she thought New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s plan to let illegal immigrants have driver’s licenses “makes a lot of sense.” Then she said she did not endorse Spitzer’s plan even though she repeated that he had the right idea. Then she accused Russert of asking a “gotcha” question.

Edwards leaped, noting that Clinton appeared to have given two different answers in less than two minutes.

“I think this is a real issue for the country,” he said. “I mean, America is looking for a president who will say the same thing, who will be consistent, who will be straight with them.”

Kucinich, meanwhile, was the only candidate to call for the impeachment of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. And he drew a surprised laugh from the crowd when he said he had once seen an unidentified flying object, joking, “I’m also going to move my campaign office to Roswell, New Mexico.”

Can Clinton be elected?
For the most part, though, the field sought to score points against Clinton by declaring her to be incapable of winning the general election.

Ahead of the debate, David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama, pointed to polls that indicate that as much as 50 percent of the electorate would have a hard time choosing Clinton, who emerged as a polarizing figure during her husband’s administration, over any Republican on Election Day.

Seizing on Clinton’s assertion that Republicans had made her the center of their “conversations and consternation,” Obama said: “Part of the reason that Republicans, I think, are obsessed with you, Hillary, is because that’s a fight that they’re very comfortable having. It is a fight that we’ve been through since the ’90s.”

Edwards echoed Obama. “If people want the status quo, Senator Clinton’s your candidate,” he said.

Dodd told NBC News that the Clinton-can’t-win message was being sent primarily to Democrats in Iowa, whose Jan. 3 caucus has traditionally made or broken candidates.

While Clinton has commanding leads in most national polls, the most recent University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll, released last week, showed Clinton and Obama in a statistical dead heat, at 29 percent to 27 percent, with Edwards in the picture at 20 percent.

Dodd did not register in the Iowa poll, but he said he was not concerned, noting that fortunes can swing quickly.

“John Kerry was 19 points behind Howard Dean on Dec. 23, 2003,” Dodd said in an interview Tuesday with NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell. “Two weeks later, he was the nominee of the Democratic Party” after winning the Iowa caucus.

“There’s nothing more offensive to the Iowa caucus-goer or the New Hampshire primary voter than being told by the national media this race is over with,” he added. “They take great exception to that.”

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