Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich raised the stakes for Democratic White House hopefuls yesterday, jumping into the 2008 race with a challenge to his own party -- end the war in Iraq.
The Ohio Democrat making his second bid for the presidency called himself the only true antiwar candidate, saying the U.S. should defund the war immediately and bring the troops home.
"My conscience calls me to action," Mr. Kucinich, 60, said at Cleveland City Hall. "I am not going to stand by and watch thousands more of our brave young American men and women killed in Iraq, or permanently injured, while our leaders are ready to take action to keep the war going."
The other Democrats weighing presidential runs are in a tough spot, fearing Republicans would use an anti-war position to paint them as unsupportive of U.S. troops. But they were bolstered last week when the bipartisan Iraq Study Group suggested that most troops be withdrawn by early 2008.
Not one lawmaker has indicated support for Mr. Kucinich's defunding plan, with each presidential hopeful instead offering nuanced positions on phased troop withdrawal and most calling for an international diplomatic summit.
Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York has been criticized for her 2002 vote for the war, along with several other possible candidates. Some Democrats like Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware are confronting the issue head-on with clear calls for change in Iraq on their political Web sites. Visitors to Mrs. Clinton's site and that of former Sen. John Edwards must dig for mention of Iraq.
Mr. Kucinich said the Democratic takeover of Congress in last month's elections suggests the American people want serious change in Iraq.
"They voted for the Democrats because they expected us to ... bring our troops home," he said. "What kind of credibility will our party have if we say we are opposed to the war but continue to fund it?"
He slammed Democrats for supporting billions in Iraq war spending so far, and noted Democrats plan to support President Bush's next spending request of $160 billion. Mr. Kucinich unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination as an antiwar candidate in 2004 but dropped his bid after lackluster performance in state primaries, finishing next to last in both New Hampshire and Iowa.
Now, Mr. Kucinich is the only candidate who served in Congress and opposed the war. All the senators considering White House bids who served in 2002 voted for the war. But Mr. Obama, first elected in 2004, former Vice President Al Gore and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack do not have past votes to defend or repudiate.
Mr. Edwards, the 2004 vice-presidential nominee, last year wrote an editorial saying his vote for the war was "wrong."
The senators considering bids cast symbolic votes earlier this year on two different Democratic plans for Iraq. One, proposed by 2004 nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts called for full troop withdrawal by July 2007. It was overwhelmingly rejected, and Mr. Kerry was the only 2008 hopeful voting for it. The other, which called for phased withdrawal starting Dec. 31, failed 60-39, with all the 2008 potential candidates supporting it.
Republicans labeled those Democrats as favoring "cut and run."
Mr. Vilsack, the only declared Democrat besides Mr. Kucinich, criticizes presumed Republican candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona on his Web site for saying recently more troops are needed in Iraq.
"We've created a culture of dependence in Iraq," Mr. Vilsack said. "We need to remove that crutch ... and give the Iraqis sole responsibility for their own safety and security."
A visitor to Mrs. Clinton's political Web site has to search for her Iraq position, found in a speech she made this fall.
"Phased redeployment will get the attention of the Iraqi leadership," she said, noting she wants to establish an oil trust to guarantee each Iraqi "would share [annually] in the country's oil wealth."
Mr. Obama often reminds voters of his early opposition to the war and his long call for setting a timetable for phased troop withdrawal. In a speech last month, Mr. Obama said the U.S. must communicate that "the days of asking, urging, and waiting for [Iraqis] to take control of their own country are coming to an end."
Mr. Biden has called for Iraq to be divided into three regions held together by a central government in Baghdad.
"The course we're on has no end in sight," he said. "This plan can allow us to achieve the two objectives most Americans share: to leave Iraq without leaving chaos behind."