Politics & Government

Democratic candidates slam Bush over Iran in staid debate

DES MOINES, Iowa — Democratic presidential candidates pilloried President Bush on Tuesday for saying that "nothing's changed" in the wake of a new intelligence report concluding that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

"He should seize this opportunity and engage in serious diplomacy, using carrots and sticks," New York Sen. Hillary Clinton said during a two-hour debate in Des Moines.

Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden warned that Bush's position is "like watching a rerun of his statements on Iraq five years earlier."

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama said "it is absolutely clear that . . . President Bush continues to not let facts get in the way of his ideology."

All pledged aggressive, broad-based diplomacy with Iran and a break with what several of them termed the Bush administration's "rush to war."

Bush had argued earlier Tuesday at a White House news conference that the new intelligence report showed that Iran had formerly had a nuclear-weapons program, that pressure from the outside world had helped persuade Iran to abandon it and the lesson he drew was that Iran remains dangerous and pressure against it should continue.

At the Democrats' debate, the other candidates continued their weeks-long criticism of Clinton for supporting a Bush-backed resolution in September that labeled Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said "there's only one candidate who voted for this legislation, and it's exactly what Bush and Cheney wanted."

Clinton responded that the resolution had caused "changes in their behavior," because Iran is no longer as active as it was in shipping arms and advisers to factions in Iraq.

The debate on National Public Radio focused on three areas: Iran, China and immigration. It tended to emphasize the candidates' agreements with one another on broad policy issues, and their unanimity in opposing Bush administration policies.

Whether it was because of the lack of television cameras or the weighty issues — such as Chinese currency manipulation — the debate saw far fewer fireworks than other forums have, even as the candidates' rhetoric has heated up recently with voting starting Jan. 3 in Iowa.

The Democratic candidates promised to crack down on China in the areas of human rights, trade, product safety and the environment, saying that the United States could use its status as China's largest trading partner and World Trade Organization rules to force change.

"They can't afford to say, `See ya later,' " Obama said.

Asked whether Americans should be required to turn in illegal aliens, Obama, Clinton, Biden and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich said no.

"We do not deputize the American people to do the job the federal government is supposed to do," Obama said. He called for securing the borders, cracking down on companies that hire illegal immigrants and providing a path to citizenship for the 12 million or so illegal immigrants who already are in the United States. Clinton and Edwards promised the same.

Clinton and Obama said government telephone help lines should remain available in English and Spanish, although Clinton said that immigrants should be encouraged to learn English because "we need English as our common unifying language."

"Like every other wave of immigrants, by the second generation they'll all be speaking English," Biden said. "What's the fear here?"

In one lighthearted moment, the candidates with young children were asked whether they'd buy toys from China for Christmas. All said no, with Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd adding: "My toys are coming from Iowa."

Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel — participating in his first debate after being excluded from recent ones — provided the most spice of the afternoon, declaring that "Iran is not a problem, never has been, never will be" and that there was nothing wrong with Iran's Revolutionary Guard supporting the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah because "these people are fighting for their rights. There's something wrong with that?"

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson didn't attend the debate because he was at a memorial service.

The candidates sat around a V-shaped table in a room devoted to the history of the influential Iowa caucuses at the Iowa State Historical Museum.