Monday, August 20, 2007

Democratic presidential candidates yesterday weighed in on whether Sen. Barack Obama is too inexperienced to be president and assessed if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton can unite the nation.

The eight White House hopefuls charged out of the gate during a morning debate in Des Moines, Iowa, hosted by ABC’s “This Week,” individually making their cases as the best-equipped to lead the country.

“Is Barack Obama ready to be president, experienced enough to be president?” asked ABC host George Stephanopoulos, a one-time aide to President Clinton.

“And can Senator Clinton … in part because of your experience, bring the country together and bring about the kind of change that all of you say the country needs?”

Mrs. Clinton, of New York, said it is “up to the voters to make these decisions.”

“I hope people will choose to be for me based on my experience, my qualifications and my plan for the future as to what I will do as president,” she said, lauding the entire Democratic field. “You don’t have to be against anybody. … You can choose who you’re for.”

Mrs. Clinton downplayed the overall differences between herself and her chief rival — instead saying she and Mr. Obama disagree on a specific circumstance about meeting with leaders of rogue nations.

She also defended her 2006 comments on ruling out nuclear-weapon use against Iran, saying the remarks were in response to a specific circumstance, and criticized Mr. Obama for giving hypothetical foreign-policy scenarios.

Mr. Obama, of Illinois, disagreed, saying his comments about targeting al Qaeda in Pakistan are no different than hers on Iran.

The other Democrats were also unwilling to say they think Mr. Obama is too inexperienced to be president, but made a point to take issue with his recent foreign-policy comments.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut noted his own decades of public service, saying it is “critical” for voters to evaluate “experience, the background, the demonstrated success in dealing with both domestic and foreign policy.”

“You’re not going to have time in January of ‘09 to get ready for this job,” he said.

Mr. Obama joked that he’d prepared for the debate by riding the bumper cars at the Iowa State Fair. Later, he reminded voters of a clear distinction between himself, the former first lady and most of the other Democrats running — he spoke out against going into Iraq in October 2002 several months before the war started.

“Nobody had more experience than Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and many of the people on this stage that authorized this war,” he said. “It indicates how we get into trouble when we engage in the sort of conventional thinking that has become the habit in Washington.”

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, nearly tied for first place with Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama in the key early caucus state of Iowa, said he agrees hypotheticals on nuclear weapons are “not healthy.”

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson weighed in with one of the best laugh lines of the morning: “Senator Obama does represent change. Senator Clinton has experience. Change and experience — with me, you get both.”

Mr. Obama positioned himself yesterday as the candidate who would bring the country together instead of having support in just the more liberal states, delivering a twist on Mrs. Clinton’s “I’m your girl” debate line from earlier this month.

“If you believe that part of the problem is the failed politics of Washington and the conventional thinking in Washington, if you’re tired of the backbiting and the scorekeeping and the special-interest-driven politics of Washington, if you want somebody who can bring the country together around a common purpose and rally us around a common destiny, then I’m your guy,” he said.

The candidates engaged on Iraq, sparring on how long it will take to withdraw troops and keying off Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s first television ad about the war.

The Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee is running an ad saying he is the only candidate telling the “hard truths” about how long it will take to leave Iraq. Mr. Edwards said the moderators were “trying to create a fight” over Iraq differences.

“Any Democratic president will end this war,” he said. “[T]he differences between all of us are very small compared to the differences between us and the Republican candidates, who, the best I can tell, are George Bush on steroids. They’re going to keep this war going as long as it can possibly go.”

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio reprised his campaign theme that Democrats lacked the courage to oppose the war when it was first authorized.

“We need a president … who’s been right from the start,” he said, “and one who has shown the judgment, the wisdom, and the maturity to take the right stand at the time that it counted most, when the American people needed someone to stand up.”

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