Iraq dominates first Democratic forum

Times Staff Writer

Democrats divided over Iraq and the pace of a U.S. pullout as the West on Wednesday hosted the first major candidate exchange of the 2008 presidential campaign.

The locale, with the snowy Sierra as a backdrop, was intended to steer the discussion toward regional issues, such as water and land use. But it was the war that dominated nearly two hours of talk by the Democratic hopefuls.

The candidates’ determination to air their differences -- despite a cumbersome format and their repeated calls for a positive campaign -- underscored the unusually early and intense nature of the race.

The sharpest split involved how best to exit Iraq. While Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina discussed a phased pullout, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack drew cheers from the audience by calling for Congress to immediately cut off funds.


The war must “be ended now,” he said. “Not six days from now. Not six months from now. Not six years from now.”

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware offered his rejoinder later. “Everybody wants to get out,” he said. “What next?”

Biden said a precipitous withdrawal would escalate violence in Iraq and spark a regional war that would draw future generations of Americans into combat. The solution, he said, was to build an international consensus for a plan to divide Iraq along sectarian lines, quelling violence and allowing a troop pullout.

The format, with contestants appearing one after another, was not a debate. Eight speakers -- all the announced candidates except Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois -- took turns giving set remarks and answering questions. Many were submitted by members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which hosted the forum.

The closest public encounter between participants came as Clinton swept out of the Carson City Community Center to a clatter of camera shutters while Edwards stood talking to reporters about 10 yards away. Neither could see the other.

As the front-runner, Clinton drew perhaps the closest scrutiny, in particular over her 2002 Senate vote to authorize the war. Unlike others in the field, she has not apologized or called the vote a mistake.

Asked about that, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut said Clinton “will speak for herself,” then mused on the difficulty public figures have acknowledging ignorance or error.

Edwards was more blunt -- albeit veiled -- in his criticism. He never mentioned Clinton’s name, but made an implied comparison with President Bush. “It’s time for a different kind of leadership in this country,” Edwards said, calling for a president “who will tell the truth when they’ve made a mistake. Who will take responsibility when they’ve made a mistake.... I voted for this war. I was wrong to vote for this war. I should never have voted for this war. I take responsibility for that.”


Given her turn, Clinton was asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, the forum moderator, about apologizing. “My vote was a sincere vote based on the facts and assurances I received at the time,” Clinton replied, adding that the most important thing now was to focus on changing the direction of U.S. policy.

Although the war dominated the forum, the candidates also set out their differences on healthcare and taxes.

While virtually every candidate endorsed universal healthcare, they disagreed over how quickly it could be implemented and how to pay for such a dramatic extension of coverage.

Clinton said she would seek to enact universal coverage “by the end of my second term.”


A short time later, Edwards declared, “I don’t want to wait six or eight years” but would seek to implement his plan -- which calls for repealing Bush’s tax cuts on high-income Americans -- as soon as he was sworn into office.

Others disputed the need to raise taxes. Vilsack suggested money being spent in Iraq could help pay for expanded healthcare coverage. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said reducing administrative costs and giving more flexibility to states could improve the system. “The solution for the Democratic Party shouldn’t always be to spend more or tax more,” Richardson said.

Several candidates touted their long records in office, inviting a comparison with Obama, who has served in the U.S. Senate for two years.

Vilsack and Richardson contrasted their years in executive office with the senators in the field. “Governors actually do things,” Richardson said to laughs and scattered applause.


Also participating in the forum were Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska.

There was a brief moment of levity -- and a lesson for many new to the state -- when Stephanopoulos read off the first question, saying it came from a union member in Reno, Nev-AH-duh. A chorus of boos rained down at Stephanopoulous’ mispronunciation, a point of much sensitivity in the state.

“Ne-VA-duh. It’s Nevada, George,” Dodd said to cheers. “That how we pronounce it in Connecticut.”