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.
Mr. Obama said the NIE "obviously" had some "pertinent information," and added that his own view in 2002 was that the administration had made a "weak case" for war using "fear-mongering."
Former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska said a candidate who voted for the war should not be president on moral grounds. "More Americans died because of their decision," he said, accusing them of having no "moral judgment."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, highlighting his resume in a way that he was not able to during the first debate, reminded voters that he was U.N. ambassador.
"Eighty percent of my time was spent on the Iraq issue. I've talked to the leaders there," he said. "I believe that it's a civil war."
Mr. Richardson also outlined his plan to deauthorize the war and withdraw troops by the end of 2007.
Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama promised that bringing troops home from Iraq would be their first priority if elected president.
But Mr. Kucinich argued that Democrats have the power to end the war now. "Don't give them any more money. Let's end the war," he said.
Mr. Dodd, who ran ads asking his colleagues to oppose the war-funding bill, said a president must keep the U.S. "safe and secure" and said the situation in Iraq has made the country weaker. "We are less safe, less secure, more vulnerable, weaker today, not stronger, as a result of this policy, that we ought to try to bring it to a close," he said.
During a brief exchange on the immigration bill being considered in the Senate, Mr. Richardson said the measure "isn't an amnesty" because it sets standards and takes time.
Mr. Richardson, the only Hispanic candidate in the race, added that he would not support a bill that "divided families" or built a "Berlin-type wall."
Mr. Edwards accused his opponents of being less than forthright about the costs of their health care plans. His would cost $920 billion, and to fund it, he would end the Bush tax cuts.
"People have been so sick of listening to politicians" who promise more than they can deliver, he said.
The candidates, debating in the state that holds the first-in-the-nation primary, also discussed terrorism.
"We live in a more dangerous world, not a less dangerous world, partly as a consequence of this president's actions" in Iraq, Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Edwards reprised a stump line that he thinks the "global war on terror" phrase is nothing more than a "political slogan" used by Mr. Bush to "justify everything he does: the ongoing war in Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, spying on Americans, torture. None of those things are OK."
Mrs. Clinton quickly said she disagreed, adding that she saw firsthand the effects of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York. "I believe we are safer than we were. We are not yet safe enough," she said.
Mr. Obama adopted his campaign theme of changing political discourse, at one point last night scolding debate organizers for asking whether English should be the official U.S. language and calling it a distraction that does a "disservice."
"This is the kind of question that is designed precisely to divide us," he said, noting that a more important question is crafting a "legal, sensible immigration policy."
Only Mr. Gravel raised his hand when all eight candidates were asked whether English should be the official language.