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Fewer boos for Clinton on Iraq

Times Staff Writer

It wasn’t the derisive reception she got a year ago, but Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton still endured a gust of boos Wednesday when explaining her position on the Iraq war before an audience of liberal activists eager for a quick end to the conflict.

Speaking at a forum of Democratic presidential candidates, the New York senator was largely applauded as she denounced the Bush administration for its opposition to stem cell research, inaction during Hurricane Katrina and the practice of wiretapping phone calls without warrants.

“Our Constitution is being shredded,” she said in a morning appearance at the Take Back America conference, sponsored by the nonprofit Campaign for America’s Future.

Trouble came when she turned to Iraq. A year ago, the group had heckled Clinton when she said she did not want to set timetables for withdrawing American forces from Iraq.

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This time, her stance seemed more in step with her listeners, though not sufficiently antiwar for some. She said she thought “the best way to support our troops is to finally start bringing them home, and out of the sectarian civil war that we have no business being part of.”

Boos flowed when she faulted Iraqi leaders for failing to “make the tough decisions.” Audience members said afterward that the blame for chaos in Iraq rested with the Bush administration, for invading Iraq in the first place.

Clinton peered out at the 3,000 people, some holding up protest signs, who crammed into the hotel ballroom.

“I love coming here every year,” she said. “I see the signs: ‘Lead us out of Iraq now.’ That’s what we’re trying to do!”

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At that, the audience clapped.

Mindful, perhaps, of last year’s response, Clinton did not offer more details on what she sees as the military’s long-term role in the region. On Tuesday, she told union members that she favored leaving a small force in Iraq to prevent Al Qaeda from developing a staging ground.

No mention of that here.

After the speech, some members of the audience said they were disappointed.

Referring to Clinton’s initial vote authorizing the war, Mary Gable, 38, of Washington, said: “If she at least apologized and said she made a mistake, I would feel much better. But when she talks about, ‘Well, the Iraqis must take control, and it’s up to them to get their act in order’ -- I feel we’re the ones who bombed them. We’re the ones who caused the problem. It’s up to us to get the heck out of there immediately.”

Other Democratic presidential candidates -- Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and Mike Gravel, a former senator from Alaska -- had spoken at the forum in the last two days.

Though Clinton is running first among Democratic candidates in most nationwide polls, she was no front-runner within the progressive sliver of the electorate attending the conference. A straw poll of 727 conference-goers showed Obama leading the pack with 29%. Edwards had 26%, and Clinton got 17%.

Clinton ticked off a list of controversies that have dogged the Bush White House, including the firing last year of eight U.S. attorneys and the slow federal response in 2005 to rising floodwaters in New Orleans. She described the Bush years as a “stunning record of secrecy and corruption -- of cronyism run amok. It is everything our founders were afraid of -- everything our Constitution was designed to prevent.”

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Sara Nichols of Brentwood, a retired public interest attorney, described Clinton’s presentation as “very good, very skillful and presidential.”

And yet, Nichols said, “the image of her standing up and saying Saddam Hussein was a threat is seared in my memory, and very hard for me to let go of.”

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com


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