Clinton, Obama take center stage at Iowa debate

Times Staff Writers

des moines -- Debating for the first time in Iowa, eight Democratic presidential hopefuls on Sunday renewed their sparring over experience, Iraq and their ability to overcome the country’s red-blue electoral divide.

Whether it was the early hour -- the local starting time was 8 a.m. -- or the churchly sanctity of a Sunday morning, the session was among the tamest of the campaign season. Much of the 90-minute program was dominated by the two front-runners, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, both as participants and as topics of discussion.

The first question from moderator George Stephanopoulos of ABC News went to the heart of what many Democrats are mulling over: whether Obama is too inexperienced and Clinton too divisive to be elected president.


The candidates were read some of the harsher remarks they have uttered on the campaign trail. For the most part they declined to repeat them on stage at Drake University, with one exception: Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware did not back away from his assertion that Obama, who is midway through his first Senate term, lacked the seasoning to be president. “I stand by the statement,” Biden said.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut also took a veiled shot at Obama. “You’re not going to have time in January of ’09 to get ready for this job,” said Dodd, a veteran of more than three decades in Congress.

But Clinton, who has accused Obama of naivete in foreign affairs, offered no such criticism Sunday. “I’m running on my own qualifications and experience,” she said, adding that “it’s really up to the voters” to parse the differences among candidates.

Obama, who quipped that he prepared for the debate by riding the bumper cars at the nearby Iowa State Fair, similarly declined to engage on the question of whether Clinton was too polarizing to win the White House, a criticism implicit as he campaigns across the country.

With Clinton standing on the opposite end of the stage -- their positioning determined by lot -- Obama said he believed that any candidate who won the Democratic nomination would prevail in November 2008. The primary selection process starts here in Iowa, with precinct caucuses scheduled for January.

Obama took a more indirect swipe at his chief rival. “What I’m suggesting is that we’re going to need somebody who can break out of the political pattern that we’ve been in over the last 20 years,” he said. Asked whether Clinton was part of the troublesome status quo, Obama said he would not be running if he did not believe he was the candidate best able to break with the past.

The electability question -- and specifically Clinton’s high disapproval ratings in opinion polls -- came up for much discussion. Clinton said the negative assessments were to be expected after being roughed up for years, starting as first lady and, more recently, as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“The idea that you’re going to escape the Republican attack machine and not have high negatives by the time they’re through with you is just missing what’s been going on in American politics for the last 20 years,” she said.

The debate was the eighth such meeting -- on top of numerous special-interest forums -- of the crowded field of Democrats and often had the feel of watching a long-married couple rehash their domestic quarrels.

One such dispute carried over from the last full-fledged debate in July, when Clinton and Obama differed over whether they would agree to meet with leaders of U.S. adversaries without precondition.

On Sunday, Clinton said a president should not “give away the bargaining chip of a personal meeting with any leader unless you know what you’re going to get.”

Obama disagreed. “I think strong countries and strong presidents meet and talk with our adversaries,” he said. “We shouldn’t be afraid to do so.”

The candidates also reiterated their positions on Iraq -- agreeing that the war should end but differing over how quickly to withdraw troops and how many to leave behind.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he would remove all U.S. troops in a matter of months. “You leave residual forces behind, the peace cannot begin,” he said.

Others deemed that position untenable. Clinton said conditions were too messy and complex for a hasty withdrawal. “It is so important that we not oversell this,” she said.

Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, reprising his role as house curmudgeon, blasted his opponents for being too meek. “This is American imperialism you’re hearing up here,” he roared, calling for an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops.

At another point, when the candidates talked about regrets, Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina mentioned their 2002 Senate votes authorizing the use of U.S. military force against Iraq.

“I was wrong to vote for this war,” said Edwards, who had been the party’s 2004 candidate for vice president.

“I too regret giving George Bush the authority he misused and abused,” Clinton said.

A few differences emerged. Obama stepped from the pack by endorsing the idea of performance-based merit pay for teachers. Other candidates rebuffed Edwards’ call to forswear contributions from lobbyists.

There were mixed responses to a question about the mortgage crisis. Clinton said that there needed to be protections for people facing foreclosures but that the answers weren’t easy, and she declined to offer any. Richardson said there needed to be tougher government regulation of the credit industry. Obama used the question to take an indirect swipe at Clinton over her defense of paid lobbyists.

“The reason that we haven’t had tougher regulation in part goes back to the issue of lobbying,” he said. “This is where special interests have been driving the agenda.”

In a question fitting for a Sunday morning, the candidates were asked whether the power of prayer could prevent or mitigate such disasters as Hurricane Katrina or the recent bridge collapse in Minnesota. No, they agreed, but it could help the faithful persevere in tough times.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, often overlooked in such settings, drew a big laugh with his response. “George,” he said, “I’ve been standing here for the last 45 minutes praying to God you were going to call on me.”