The three Democratic presidential front-runners last night took turns jabbing one another and President Bush, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton blaming the Iraq war on the president and a tense exchange between Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards.
The second debate of the 2008 White House hopefuls allowed the front-runners to differentiate themselves, but it also gave the lesser-known candidates a chance to outline their plans for the country.
Mr. Edwards, of North Carolina, has pressured his rivals to cut off funding for the war. He says the recent Democratic Iraq war spending bill was a “moment of truth” and accused Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama of “standing quiet” instead of taking a stand on Iraq.
“It’s the difference between leading and following,” Mr. Edwards said during the debate, held in New Hampshire and televised nationally on CNN. “All of us have a responsibility to lead … not just on Iraq, but on health care, on energy, on all the other issues.”
Among the 2008 Democratic hopefuls, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama voted against the funding bill, as did Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio.
“I opposed this war from the start,” Mr. Obama, of Illinois, fired back at Mr. Edwards, adding: “You’re about 4 years late on leadership on this issue. It’s important not to play politics on something that is as critical and as difficult as this.”
Mr. Obama, a first-term senator who was not serving when Congress approved President Bush’s war authority in October 2002, was highlighting the “yes” war votes from Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Edwards, Mr. Dodd and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Mr. Edwards said he made a mistake voting for the war, adding that a difference between himself and Mrs. Clinton is: “I think I was wrong.”
“It is important for anybody who seeks to be the next president of the United States, given the dishonesty that we’ve been faced with over the last several years, to be honest to the country,” he said.
Mrs. Clinton said she made the right vote based on what she knew at the time and blamed Mr. Bush, adding that he has misused the war authority.
“It’s important, particularly, to point out this is George Bush’s war,” she said. “He is responsible for this war … started the war … mismanaged the war … escalated the war. And he refuses to end the war.”
Mr. Biden, of Delaware, was the only Democrat to vote for the $120 billion funding bill last month and insisted that the money is critical in part so troops can get “mine-resistant vehicles” that will help lead to fewer casualties.
“I knew the right political vote,” but “some things are worth losing elections over,” said Mr. Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Mr. Biden twice declined to criticize his competitors on Iraq, noting, “these are my friends” and “we’ve worked hard to try and end this war.”
Rival campaigns have privately criticized Mrs. Clinton for not reading the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in the lead-up to the war vote, but last night the former first lady insisted she was “thoroughly briefed” and cast a “sincere vote” based on her policy discussions.