CARSON CITY, Nev.—Democratic presidential candidates clashed Wednesday over Iraq and health care, an early preview of the two biggest likely flashpoints of their coming yearlong competition for the party's 2008 presidential nomination.
The long campaign's first candidate forum didn't allow the candidates to question one another directly. But they used their opening statements and their answers to questions from a moderator to signal that they'll use those two issues more than any others to differentiate themselves from one another—and from Republicans.
On Iraq, the key point of difference was whether some candidates thought their initial support of the war was a mistake—and whether it's necessary to admit such an error to qualify as the Democrats' presidential nominee.
"It was a mistake, in my view, to vote the way we did five years ago on that resolution," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.
"I vastly underestimated ... the incompetence of this administration," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del.
Both men voted for the 2002 Senate resolution authorizing President Bush to use force against Iraq.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., again refused to say she made a mistake in voting for that resolution.
"My vote was a sincere vote based on the facts and assurances that I had at the time," she said. "And I have taken responsibility for my vote, and I believe that none of us should get a free pass. It is up to the voters to judge what each of us has said and done."
In what might have been a veiled slap at Clinton—though he later denied that it was—former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina called it a failure of leadership to refuse to admit a mistake. (He too voted for the 2002 war resolution; he's since said it was a mistake.)
"We've had six years of a president who will take no responsibility for what he's done, six years of a president who is incapable of admitting that he was wrong, incapable of admitting that he's made a mistake," Edwards said.
"We need a leader who will be open and honest with you and with the American people, who will tell the truth, who will tell the truth when they've made a mistake, who will take responsibility when they've made a mistake," he added, to applause from the audience of union members.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees hosted the two-hour forum.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, pointedly noted that he opposed the war from the start and that he'd seen the same intelligence reports the other lawmakers saw.
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who opposed the war before it began, didn't participate in the forum.
On health care, all candidates present vowed to expand coverage to all of the country's 47 million uninsured. They differed over how fast they would accomplish the goal, which has eluded Democrats since Harry Truman first made it a party priority in 1945.
"I want to have universal health care coverage by the end of my second term," Clinton said. That would be the end of 2016.
Obama has promised to do it by the end of his first term, or 2012.
"I don't want to wait six or eight years to have universal health care," said Edwards, seeking to better his two main rivals at this point. "I want to start putting universal health care in place as soon as I am sworn into office in January of 2009, which is what America needs. We can't wait."
Several candidates also differed over how to pay for universal health care.
Edwards said he'd raise taxes on those making more than $200,000 a year. Both Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack said they'd do it without raising taxes.
The fact that the Democrats were in Nevada also served to preview that the campaign road map is changing. Nevada is scheduled to vote second, on Jan. 19, in the Democrats' nominating process—after Iowa and before New Hampshire—in a shift that party leaders hope will induce candidates to cater more to the West and make the region more competitive for Electoral College votes.
"The future of the Democratic Party lies in the West," said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader, in opening the forum. "The western region is going through realignment. Democrats have an opportunity to harness this trend and take us to the White House."
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