MANCHESTER, N.H. – Democratic presidential candidates clashed on Sunday on Iraq and over the security of the country since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, trailing both New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in national polls, criticized their cautious approach in forcing President Bush to withdraw troops from Iraq.
While some members of Congress spoke out “loudly and clearly” last month against legislation to pay for the war through September but without a withdrawal timetable, “others did not,” Edwards said.
“They went quietly to the floor of the Senate, cast the right vote. But there is a difference between leadership and legislating,” Edwards told his rivals during the second Democratic debate.
Both Clinton and Obama voted against the bill – which passed – but without making a strong case against the legislation.
Clinton disagreed with Edwards, both in his comments on her role on Iraq and in his characterization of Bush’s global war on terrorism as a “political slogan, a bumper sticker.”
As a New Yorker, “I have seen firsthand the terrible damage that can be inflicted on our country by a small band of terrorists,” Clinton said.
Still, she said, “I believe we are safer than we were.”
Obama told Edwards, who voted in October 2002 to authorize the war in Iraq but now says that the vote was a mistake: “John, you’re about four and a half years late on leadership on this issue.”
Obama was not in the Senate at the time of the vote but had voiced opposition to the war resolution at the time.
Edwards conceded, “He was right, I was wrong” on opposing the war from the beginning.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said the war on Iraq should not just be blamed on Bush, but on the Congress that authorized it.
U.S. troops “never should have been sent there in the first place,” he said. Rather than debate timetables and benchmarks, the Democratic-controlled Congress should “just say no money, the war’s over,” he said.
To a question on whether English should be the official language in the United States, only former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel raised his hand in the affirmative.
All the candidates raised their hands when asked by moderator Wolf Blitzer if they would get rid of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military instituted by President Clinton.
Edwards also challenged Obama, who recently unveiled his health care plan, on the need for universal coverage. Edwards was the first Democratic candidate to offer a proposal and he complained that Obama’s plan falls short of offering universal coverage.
Candidates also split on ways to pressure the government of Sudan to end violence in its Darfur region, where more than 200,000 people have been killed in four years of fighting between rebels and government forces.
Richardson suggested leaning on China – up to a possible threatened boycott of the 2008 summer Olympics – to pressure Sudan to allow in more U.N. peacekeepers.
Clinton declined to say whether she would use military force in Darfur, saying she didn’t want to “talk about these hypotheticals.”