CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Democratic presidential candidates used a new debate style last night to illustrate clear distinctions among them on foreign policy, health care and their ability to relate to the common man.
The questions posed at the forum were asked by regular people via YouTube.com and struck a different-than-usual tone immediately when the eight White House hopefuls were criticized for talking about their unity in previous meetings.
In multiple cases, the candidates tried to showcase their differences. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois said he would have talks with foreign leaders in Iran and Syria within one year of taking office, while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York immediately said she would not meet leaders such as Fidel Castro of Cuba and Kim Jong-il of North Korea.
Mr. Obama got the question first, saying: “The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous.”
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s answer about using diplomacy in response to a question from three aid workers standing in front of a refugee camp in Sudan’s Darfur region provoked a spirited response from Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.
“I’m so tired of this,” he said, adding the United States must send troops “now.”
“Those kids will be dead by the time the diplomacy is over,” he said. “Twenty-five hundred American troops — if we do not get the 21,000 U.N. troops in there — can stop the genocide now.”
When pressed on the same question, Mrs. Clinton said she does not support putting American troops in Darfur because “we’ve got to figure out what we’re doing in Iraq, where our troops are stretched thin, and Afghanistan, where we’re losing the fight to al Qaeda and [Osama] bin Laden.”
“I’m trying to provoke a debate here, because there’s a difference between the senators and me on when we get our troops out,” he said, adding his position was clear that all troops be withdrawn in six months and no residual forces would remain.
“It’s time to start to tell the truth,” he said. “If we started today, it would take one year … to get 160,000 troops physically out of Iraq.”
“The time for us to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we went in,” he said. “That is something that too many of us failed to do.”
On health care, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina criticized Mr. Obama’s plan for not mandating coverage. Later, he got emotional when talking about a man who lived with a cleft palate until he was 50.
“When are we going to stand up and do something about this?” he asked. “We have talked about it too long. … We should be outraged by these stories.”
Mr. Edwards also said he felt “enormous personal conflict” when asked by the Rev. Reggie Longcrier of Hickory, N.C., “Why is it still acceptable to use religion to deny gay Americans their full and equal rights?”
“Do I believe and do I personally support gay marriage? The honest answer to that is I don’t,” he said.
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio pointed out that he is the only candidate who voted against the war and has voted against funding for troops in Iraq “100 percent of the time.”
“When we took over in January, the American people didn’t expect us to give them a Democratic version of the war,” he said.
Several candidates agreed on wanting to “scrap” the No Child Left Behind education act, but Mr. Dodd said he liked the idea of accountability.
“You measure growth in a child. You invest in failing schools,” he said. “I would not scrap it entirely.”
The forum generated laughs and even some wet eyes as citizens showcased their own struggles — one woman took off her wig and said she hopes to be a breast cancer survivor before asking about preventive health care.
“We’re not really sure what to expect tonight,” CNN moderator Anderson Cooper told the audience when opening the two-hour debate, held at The Citadel, the military college of South Carolina.
In all, YouTube, owned by Google, received 2,989 questions ranging from a subtitled cat inquiring about its food supply and two exaggerated Tennessee hillbillies talking about Al Gore to a snowman worrying about how global warming would affect his snowball child’s future.
But the serious questions gave a human face to issues such as health care, poverty and homosexual rights.
Mrs. Clinton was quick to note each questioner’s name and seemed conversational in her answers. She got big cheers in response to a question about whether her election would represent the change voters want because it would mean 24 consecutive years of presidents named either Bush or Clinton.
“Well, I think it is a problem that Bush was elected in 2000,” she said.
Each Democrat made a 30-second video of his own, with Mr. Dodd saying he has white hair because of his years of hard work as a senator, and Mr. Biden solemnly presenting himself as the most qualified to end the war in Iraq.
Mrs. Clinton ended her video with this phrase on a written cue card: “Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.”
The Edwards video, titled “Hair,” was the best-received. Set to theme song from the famed 1960s musical “Hair,” it played on embarrassing headlines revealing the former senator had gotten a $400 haircut and showed competing images of hair and scenes from Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It closed with “What really matters? You choose.”
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