DAVENPORT, Iowa — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday defended her 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq, a vote that Democratic activists have said could doom her campaign for the presidency.
“At the time, I said ‘This is not a vote for pre-emptive war.’ I said that on the floor of the Senate. I said that we should not go to war unless we have allies,” she told about 300 Iowans gathered at a fairground for a town-hall-style meeting.
In her first public comments about that vote since she arrived in the state Friday, Mrs. Clinton shifted most of the blame onto President Bush for his execution of the war.
“He took the authority that I and others gave him, and he misused it and I regret that deeply,” she said. “If we knew then what we know now, there never would have been a vote. I never would have voted to give this president that authority.”
Yesterday’s event was in stark contrast to her first public forum in Iowa on Saturday, where Mrs. Clinton drew no pointed questions about her vote. It was an indication that the staunchest anti-war Democrats had stayed away from her event, so by Saturday night she sought to address the question directly on her own.
“I know how difficult the last six years have been, particularly because of this president’s foreign policy, his pre-emptive war in Iraq, his management of the war and his stubborn refusal to change course,” she told a small gathering at a home in Cedar Rapids on Saturday night.
Mrs. Clinton also held her first press conference since announcing her White House bid Jan. 20 and told reporters that the world is less safe because of how the war in Iraq has played out.
“I understand how … much more dangerous it is” because of what she called “the president’s policies” at a high school library here yesterday.
She also said she will “wholeheartedly support” either of the Senate resolutions condemning Mr. Bush’s plan to add 21,500 troops to those already in Iraq — so long as it is “a clear statement of disapproval.”
Mrs. Clinton also demanded that Mr. Bush pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq in two years, calling the war “his decision” and saying it would be “the height of irresponsibility” to pass it along to the next commander in chief.
“We expect him to extricate our country from this before he leaves office” in January 2009, she said.
White House spokesman Rob Saliterman called Mrs. Clinton’s words “a partisan attack that sends the wrong message to our troops, our enemies and the Iraqi people who are working to make this plan succeed.”
But most of the questions from reporters yesterday pertained to a moment earlier in the day when she responded to a question from the town-hall audience about whether her life has prepared her to face down “evil men” in the world, such as Osama bin Laden. As Mrs. Clinton often does, she repeated the question for those who might not have heard it.
“What in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?” she said aloud and lingered in thought for a moment. The audience roared with laughter and applause as Mrs. Clinton prolonged her silence with perfect comic timing.
But at the press conference later in the day, reporters were not laughing. The first question and several after demanded to know what precisely she meant. Each time, she dodged the suggestion that she was making light of a question about “evil and bad men.”
Finally she grew exasperated and said: “I thought I was funny.”
Then she told the several dozen reporters: “You guys keep telling me to lighten up. I be a little funny and now I’m being psychoanalyzed.”
Among the few questions asked yesterday that did not pertain to the voter’s question dealt with her stand on illegal immigration. She noted that she supported last year’s Senate-passed bill that critics say would grant amnesty to the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens currently in the United States.
“I hope that we’re going to return to considering that in the new Democratic Congress,” she said. “I believe in a tough but clear earned path to citizenship.”