- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

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.”

In addition, five of the eight candidates — Mr. Richardson, Mr. Biden, Mr. Dodd, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska — acknowledged keeping or having kept a gun in their home.

The candidates also weighed in on what kind of judges they would put on the U.S. Supreme Court, given the high court’s recent decision to uphold a ban on partial-birth abortion.

Mr. Obama said women do not “casually” decide to abort and said he wanted to “move forward” with the issue to find places where politicians can agree, such as reducing teen pregnancy rates.

“I trust women to make these decisions in conjunction with their families, their doctors and their clergy,” he said.

“Abortions ought to be rare, safe and legal,” said Mr. Dodd, the only Democratic candidate who voted to confirm Mr. Bush’s nomination of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in 2005.

On immigration, Mrs. Clinton said she thinks the U.S. must take a comprehensive stance by sanctioning employers hiring undocumented workers and get the “12 million or so” illegals “out of the shadows.”

“After 9/11, we’ve got to know who’s in this country. And then giving them a chance to pay a fine, pay back taxes, learn English and stand in line to be eligible for a legal status in this country,” she said.

Mr. Kucinich sharply criticized the four senators running for president, who earlier yesterday had voted for the Democrat-written $124 billion supplemental spending bill that Mr. Bush has pledged to veto because it includes a timetable for troop withdrawal. Mr. Kucinich voted against the bill Wednesday and said Democrats are “reauthorizing” the war “all over again.”

“It’s inconsistent to tell the American people you oppose the war and … continue to fund the war,” said Mr. Kucinich, the only candidate who cast a “no” vote for the war in 2002. “The Democrats have the power to end the war right now.”

Joining Mr. Kucinich in the staunchly anti-war wing of the presidential hopefuls was Mr. Gravel, who continually berated his rivals, saying he was “embarrassed” by the passage of the war-funding bill.

“The military industrial complex not only controls our government, lock, stock and barrel, but they control our culture,” he said while dismissing a question about America’s enemies, saying, “We have no important enemies.”

The candidates promised that they would work toward energy independence in an effort to home in on a growing issue — global warming. Mr. Richardson promised that in the first few days of his hypothetical administration, he would embark on an Apollo-type project to fund clean energy initiatives, Mr. Obama bragged that on Earth Day, he organized 3,000 volunteers to plant trees.

The 90-minute debate was held at South Carolina State University by MSNBC. The wide-ranging forum yielded some laughs and answers to some more unusual questions, including Mr. Obama saying the Confederate flag, which flies on State House grounds “should be put in a museum. That’s where it belongs.”

The Democrats will stay in this state — which holds the first-in-the-South primary election Jan. 29 — to campaign today. Tonight, they will be in Columbia, the state capital, to attend the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner and the famed Fish Fry that follows.

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