Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said yesterday she would end the Iraq war as president if the conflict was still raging when she took office.
“If we in Congress don’t end this war before January 2009, as president, I will,” the New York Democrat said at the Democratic National Committee Winter Meeting here.
Iraq and economic populism were by far the dominant issues among the half-dozen presidential contenders who sought their party leadership’s support at the DNC meeting. Mrs. Clinton and her chief rivals repeatedly brought the overflow crowd at the Washington Hilton to its feet in cheering each denunciation of President Bush’s war policies.
After well-received speeches by Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who called for early troop withdrawal from a war they said never should have been waged, Mrs. Clinton was under pressure to stake out an equally strong policy position before the fiercely anti-war audience.
“I want to be very clear about this: If I had been president in October 2002, I would not have started this war,” said the former first lady, who has been criticized by anti-war voices for voting to authorize the war and steadfastly refusing to support calls for a military pullout.
Mrs. Clinton has refused to say her vote for the war was a mistake and has proposed a cap on troop levels instead of troop reductions. A group of anti-war hecklers could be heard in the packed hall when she talked about her support for a Senate resolution opposing Mr. Bush’s plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq, a resolution some of her rivals have called weak and ineffective.
But she defended the nonbinding resolution being debated in the Senate.
“I understand there is frustration and outrage,” Mrs. Clinton said, adding that “if we can pass a resolution disapproving of the troop escalation, that will be the first time we said no to President Bush.” She also called for cutting funds for the Iraqi army if it does not achieve certain benchmarks.
Of the three top-tier candidates, Mr. Edwards drew the strongest responses for his emotional message of economic populism as he talked of poverty in America, “children who go to bed hungry” and do not have health care — repeating the challenging refrain: “Will you stand up for them, will you stand up for America?”
He condemned the Senate resolution challenging the troop buildup in Iraq as meaningless, and in a pointed remark that some saw as a thinly veiled criticism of Democrats such as Mrs. Clinton, he said: “This is not a time for political calculation. This is a time for political courage. We have to stand up against George Bush’s escalation of this war.”
Denouncing those in the party who want to change its policies to broaden its appeal to more moderate voters, Mr. Edwards said, “We don’t need to redefine the Democratic Party, we need to reclaim it.”
Mr. Obama, who was received like a celebrity, also condemned the war, saying that the party’s candidates had “a responsibility to put forward a plan to get us out of Iraq and [end] the bloodshed.” He called for a phased withdrawal from Iraq in three to four months.
But much of his speech was a more muted, reflective critique of modern-day campaigning, which he said has turned politics “into a game, a blood sport” in which one’s opponents “are not just wrong, but they are bad. This is not a game, this is not about digging up skeletons. This is not a contest for TV cameras. It’s a contest for America,” Mr. Obama said.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut also criticized the Democrats’ compromise resolution on the war.
“Frankly, I’m disappointed,” Mr. Dodd said. “It’s time to get our troops out of the country and we’re debating a nonbinding resolution. It’s time to send a bill to the president with real teeth in it.”
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and former Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa are scheduled to address the DNC today.