ORANGEBURG, S.C. — Democrats hoping to become the next U.S. president made their most visible pitch yet to voters last night, with the war in Iraq dominating their first debate, the earliest election-season forum in modern history.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, said the war is “not America’s war to win or lose.”
“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 and it is past time for them to demonstrate that they are willing to make the sacrifice,” said the former first lady, who leads her rivals in early polling.
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois said the United States is “one signature” away from ending the war, saying President Bush and Republicans should listen to the American people.
“What we can’t do is expect that we can continue to impose a military solution on what is essentially a political problem, and that’s what we have to organize around,” he said.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, agreed.
“The real question is: Are we going to be able to leave Iraq, get our troops out, and leave behind something other than chaos?”
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he would immediately withdraw “all of our troops” by the end of this calendar year and use “intensive diplomacy” to stabilize the country.
When asked to name a mistake he has made, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the party’s 2004 vice-presidential nominee responded, “I was wrong to vote for this war. Unfortunately, I’ll have to live with that forever. And the lesson I learned from it is to put more faith in my own judgment.”
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut echoed Mr. Edwards’ statement that his vote for the war was a mistake.
Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Biden, Mr. Dodd and Mr. Edwards voted in October 2002 to authorize the Iraq war. Mr. Obama was not serving in the Senate at the time and reminded debate viewers he is “proud that I opposed this war from the start.”
Mr. Bush was the frequent target of the White House hopefuls last night, with Mr. Richardson charging that “being stubborn isn’t a foreign policy and power without diplomacy is blind,” and Mr. Biden naming his personal mistake as “overestimating the competence of this administration and underestimating the arrogance.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Robert M. Duncan dismissed the Democrats at the debate as “predictable,” and said the candidates are “out of touch with the values of the people of South Carolina — and all of America.”
Mrs. Clinton said preventing events such as last week’s Virginia Tech massacre will require keeping guns “out of the hands of the criminals and the mentally unstable” but noted lawmakers must balance that with Second Amendment rights.
Mr. Richardson, who has a strong National Rifle Association rating that moderator Brian Williams pointed out, noted that the “vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding.”