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Democratic candidates gang up on Bush, war in Iraq

ORANGEBURG, S.C.—Candidates for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination eyed each other politely—even warily—Thursday in their first face-to-face debate, a session that offered little likelihood of dramatically shaking up the young campaign.

The eight candidates differed sharply with President Bush, particularly on Iraq, but seldom with one another. The format did not allow them to directly challenge each other—and few did.

Rather, they mostly agreed in their desire to get U.S. troops out of Iraq, to expand health care to the uninsured while controlling costs for those with insurance, to support abortion rights without qualification, and to bar access to guns for the mentally ill like the gunman who killed 32 at Virginia Tech.

Absent direct challenges—or any pronounced gaffes—the debate probably did nothing to fundamentally change the shape of the contest with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina leading in the polls and the rest trailing well behind.

Campaign aides said afterward that they saw little in the debate that would dramatically alter the political landscape—though each predictably said that his or her own candidate did very well.

Mark Penn, senior strategist to the Clinton campaign, said it was too early to expect direct attacks that would turn off voters just getting to know the candidates. "Now is not the time for sharp exchanges," he said.

The debate was the first of a fast-developing campaign in a party desperate to pick a winner who can retake the White House from the Republicans in November 2008—an eagerness underscored by the thousands who have gathered for unusually early rallies, and the tens of thousands writing checks to finance campaigns.

Sponsored by the South Carolina Democratic Party, the 90-minute debate was moderated by NBC newsman Brian Williams on the campus of South Carolina State University.

Iraq dominated the early questioning, coming just hours after the Senate voted to mandate the withdrawal of U.S. troops starting in October. All four sitting senators running for the nomination voted for the ordered withdrawal.

All candidates said they supported troop removal. Obama stressed that he was proud to have opposed the war from the start when he was a state senator.

Two candidates refused to say whether they agreed with the recent assertion by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader, that the Iraq war is "lost."

Clinton sidestepped the issue but said she was "proud" of Reid's leadership. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware also refused to comment on Reid's assertion. "This is not a game show," he said.

Despite their opposition to the war, none of the candidates would join fellow candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio in urging impeachment of Vice President Dick Cheney.

On health care, all propose finding ways to cover the nation's 47 million uninsured while controlling costs. They differed on the need to raise taxes to pay for their proposals.

Edwards said he would raise taxes on those making more than $200,000 to finance his proposed coverage of the uninsured. Clinton said she would not add any new spending—presumably meaning she would not add new taxes. Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico flatly ruled out raising taxes.

Several candidates including Biden, Clinton and Richardson also said they want to curb access to guns by the mentally ill in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre.

But Richardson cautioned against going too far to regulate guns. "I'm a Westerner," he said. "The Second Amendment is precious in the West."

Richardson and four others—Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, Biden and Kucinich—raised their hands when asked if they had ever had a gun in their home.

Pressed to explain why he used campaign money to pay for a $400 haircut, Edwards called it a mistake.

Edwards and Clinton both were asked to explain how hedge funds improve the country—Edwards because he worked for one, Clinton because she represents the state where many are based.

Edwards said hedge funds are "an important part" of figuring out how to expand health care or solve poverty, though he didn't explain how. Clinton said the country is better because of its "entrepreneurial economy" but added that government regulation ensures that none has an "unfair advantage."

There were a couple of light spots in the evening.

One came from little-known Gravel when he was asked to explain his presence in the campaign and the debate. "Some of these people frighten me," said Gravel to laughter.

The other moment belonged to Biden. Asked by Williams whether he could control his exceedingly verbose style on the world stage, Biden gave a one-word answer: "Yes."

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For comments or questions about this article or about the 2008 campaign: www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/news/special(underscore)packages/election2008/qa(underscore)forum.htm

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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