- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Democratic presidential candidates fought once again last night over how to end the Iraq war, with the front-runners refusing to pledge absolutely to withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of their first term and coming under fire from the others for that refusal.

Moderator Tim Russert began the seventh debate of 2007 by asking all eight candidates whether they would pledge unconditionally to pull out U.S. combat forces, and Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton demurred.

“It is my goal to have all combat troops out by the end of my first term, but it’s difficult to answer that question because we do not know what we will be inheriting” at the end of President Bush’s second term, Mrs. Clinton said.

Mr. Obama said that although “I believe we should have all troops out in 2013,” it would be “irresponsible” to project that far into the future what the circumstances in Iraq might be.

But that position came under immediate fire from former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who said that although he “cannot make that commitment,” he “would immediately begin to draw down 40,000 to 50,000 troops and begin to withdraw all troops out of Iraq.”

The only exception would be to retain noncombat forces for humanitarian purposes, he said, estimating that this would require “about a brigade” of 3,500 to 5,000 troops.

“Good people have differences about this issue. Senator Clinton said we would continue to have combat missions in Iraq. I would not have any combat mission in Iraq,” he said.

Mrs. Clinton quickly denied Mr. Edwards’ assertion, saying that she intended only to retain counterterrorism forces there “aimed at al Qaeda in Iraq, but the vast majority of our troops will be out.”

The candidates trailing in the polls immediately went after that caution, playing to the Democrats’ antiwar base.

“I will get that done,” said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said that the front-runners are merely “changing this mission,” rather than trying to “end the war.” He and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio both estimated that a withdrawal could be achieved in a matter of months.

Also participating in last night’s two-hour forum at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, televised nationally on MSNBC, were Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska. The debate came as a University of New Hampshire poll conducted for CNN showed Mrs. Clinton drawing 43 percent support from the state’s primary voters, followed by Mr. Obama with 20 percent and Mr. Edwards with 12 percent.

The candidates also addressed immigration in response to a question about whether they would allow “sanctuary cities” that provide safe haven for illegal immigrants. Most essentially said that they would allow sanctuary cities in the absence of “comprehensive immigration reform” and better law enforcement.

“I don’t think there is any choice,” Mrs. Clinton replied when Mr. Russert asked her whether she would “allow the sanctuary cities to disobey the federal law?”

Mr. Richardson, who is of Hispanic descent, said, “The answer is yes. The problem we have is the lack of a comprehensive immigration policy … But what you don’t do is basically deport everybody; that makes no sense.”

But when asked if he would “allow those cities to ignore the federal law?” Mr. Biden answered with a terse “no.”

Mr. Russert asked Mrs. Clinton why voters should not question her judgment after having voted for the Iraq war in the beginning and authored a health care reform plan that even the Democratic Congress refused to bring up for a vote.

She conceded that on her ill-fated 1994 health care plan, “I made mistakes. But I’ve come back with a different plan that is what I think people want. I intend to be the health care president,” she said.

Mr. Obama, pressed by Mr. Russert on his lack of experience, said he believed he could “bring the country together.”

“We need someone who can take on the special interests. I have consistently done that,” he said.

Asked about the issue of homosexuality in the context of a second-grade storybook about two princes “marrying,” the candidates said it should not be made into a political issue to divide Americans.

“I want my children to make that decision on behalf of themselves. I don’t want to impose my views on them,” Mr. Edwards said.

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