- The Washington Times - Monday, September 17, 2007

Iraq was the central issue yesterday as the Democratic presidential hopefuls met in Iowa to romance key caucus voters at the Harkin Steak Fry.

The Iowa caucus is a must-win for Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards, who are locked in a tight race there and could use a victory in the early contest as a catapult to winning the party”s nomination.

The other candidates at the steak fry, an annual fundraiser near Indianola for Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, told voters that anything is possible.

“Iowa is going to decide who is going to be the next president, not the chattering class in Washington, D.C.,” said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

Mr. Harkin, who will remain neutral for the Jan. 14 caucus even though his wife, Ruth, has endorsed Mrs. Clinton, said any of the candidates “will make us proud.”

Mrs. Clinton, of New York, said that if she is elected, she would restore the country’s standing abroad with the message: “The era of cowboy diplomacy is over. America is back.”

The six major candidates each had 15 minutes to address voters. As each gave versions of their stump speeches, the others sat in the sun, a rare format for this group. Usually they meet for structured debates or follow each other for individual addresses at forums.

Amid upbeat speeches that included similar anti-Bush administration themes and promises for better schools and a strengthened middle class, the candidates politely clashed on Iraq policy.

Mr. Edwards of North Carolina pressured Congress to reject any Iraq funding bill that does not include a timetable for withdrawal, saying, “It is time to bring this war to an end.”

Mrs. Clinton said she would remove the troops “as quickly and responsibly as possible,” and Mr. Richardson repeated his pledge to withdraw from Iraq and leave no residual forces behind.

Mr. Obama of Illinois assumed his usual role of subtly hitting the other candidates for supporting the war in October 2002. He told voters that he opposed from the start a “war that should never have been authorized.”

“A lot of years in Washington doesn’t guarantee good judgment; it doesn’t guarantee good character,” the first-term senator said, noting that he would work to defeat a funding bill without a deadline for troop withdrawal.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware apologized in anticipation of giving a “serious” speech, saying the election is “as serious as a heart attack.”

“[President] Bush made it abundantly clear that he will not end this war in Iraq. One of us on this stage is going to have to end the war he started, and that is deadly serious,” he said.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut said that like many voters, he is “angry” and derided the Bush administration as abusing the Constitution.

More than 12,000 attendees — many of them undecided voters — paid $30 for grilled steak and a chance to hear the politicians.

The event was an early test of organization, which will matter in January when the candidates need supporters to devote hours on their behalf during the caucus.

Several thousand turned out for Mr. Obama at a pre-event rally, and each candidate’s supporters had campaign T-shirts and signs and knew their rallying cries.

Obama staffers were confident they had done well, given the hundreds of “O” signs waved by supporters and the long line of voters waiting to shake his hand after the event.

“I want to be your second choice,” Mr. Obama told a woman wearing another candidate’s T-shirt, before autographing a voter’s “Hillary” sign.

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