Excluding the war in Iraq, the Democratic presidential contenders at today's Iowa debate steered clear of the campaign's many hot-button issues, discussing instead a range of unexpected social and personal issues and frequently returning to the theme of experience.
Much of the debate was couched in language pitting experienced political veterans against new ideas from candidates who haven't spent decades as Washington insiders. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton took center stage, deflecting barbs from the other candidates and leaving former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who entered the debate virtually tied for first place with Obama and Clinton in Iowa, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, struggling to assert himself as a first-tier candidate nationally.
Despite weeks of increasingly heated rhetoric on the campaign trail, much of it directed at Obama and his experience, Clinton passed on her first chance to attack the Illinois senator, deflecting the first question out of the gate about whether Obama "was ready."
Much of the rhetoric regarding Obama's lack of experience focused on his previous comments that he would be willing to meet with adversarial leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro.
Despite her initially conciliatory tone, when pushed to comment on Obama's position, Clinton reiterated her initial criticism of Obama's statement, saying, "I don't think any president should give away a bargaining chip of a personal meeting with any leader, unless you know what you're going to get out of that."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson would not answer moderator George Stephanopoulos' direct question about Obama's experience.
"You know, I think that Sen. Obama does represent change. Sen. Clinton has experience. Change and experience: With me, you get both," Richardson said, getting a laugh out of the audience.
"You know, it's interesting. You talk about the dispute between the two senators over dictators that — should we, should we not meet? I've met them already, most of them. All my life I've been a diplomat trying to bring people together."
Obama used the debate's focus on experience to deflect much of the criticism he has received, pointing out that more experienced leaders led the country into a quagmire in Iraq and have continued to support ineffective policies for dealing with U.S. adversaries.
He did not back down from his previous statements that he would meet with rogue leaders if elected.
"I don't actually see that much difference or people criticizing me on the substance of my positions. I think that there's been some political maneuvering taking place over the last couple of weeks," Obama said. "It is my belief that we need a fundamental change if we're going to dig ourselves out of the hole that George Bush has placed us in. And that's going to require the kind of aggressive diplomacy — preparation, yes, but aggressive diplomacy, the personal diplomacy of the next president — to transform how the world sees us. That is ultimately going to make us safer."
At no other point in the debate were the candidates so heated or divergent in their positions than they were when debating a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
While the candidates agreed on drawing down the U.S. military presence in Iraq, they were pushed to lay out their specific plans.
Though Edwards said any Democrat elected would end the war in Iraq, the candidates differed on the timetable and strategy for bringing U.S. troops home.
Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Richardson — both trailing in the polls — each offered divergent plans.
Richardson said he wants U.S. troops out of Iraq in eight months. "Many generals agree with me that we can complete this is approximately eight months. … We can do this," he said.
But Biden, backed by Clinton, Edwards and Obama quickly jumped on Richardson's proposed timetable.
"If we leave Iraq in chaos, there will be regional war," Biden said. "I laid out a plan a year ago. … We should separate the parties … give them breathing room. It's going to take one full year."
While supporting Biden's sentiment that troops could not hastily be withdrawn, Obama used the discussion on Iraq to hammer home his frequent point that he did not vote to authorize the war.
"I think Joe is right, on how long this is going to take," Obama said. "It will not be a simple operation. … There are only bad options and worse options. [We need to] begin an orderly, phased withdrawal. … There are no good options. … This is the equivalent of George Bush drove this bus into a ditch."
The Political Is Personal
Steering clear of the campaign's more contentious issues like abortion, gay marriage and health care, the candidates were given the opportunity to discuss other social issues including education.
The candidates were generally in agreement on their opposition to giving teachers incentives for their students' improved scores on standardized tests.
All but former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel and Obama opposed the idea of paying teachers incentives.
"I actually think that we can implement a performance-based system that teachers buy into, but I don't think it can be imposed on teachers. I think it has to be one that is developed with teachers," Obama said.
Rather than take the bait from Edwards by agreeing to turn down money from special interest groups, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd insisted that candidates should receive public funds rather than raise money from lobbyists and businesses.
"Well, look, first of all, I find this sort of situational ethics here. I mean, over the years, the fine people taking money from one group or the other were sort of competing with each other as to which group is a good or bad group here," Dodd said.
"The fact of the matter is: I've been supporting, for years and years, public financing of federal offices. That's what needed in this country," he said.
The debate twice turned personal, with candidates discussing their belief in God and the decisive moment that led them to run for president.
"I think it is enormously important to look to God — and, in my case, Christ — for guidance and for wisdom," Edwards said. "But I don't think you can prevent bad things from happening through prayer."
Richardson acknowledged his personal beliefs, but insisted they are separate from his political campaign.
"I pray. I'm a Roman Catholic. My sense of social justice, I believe, comes from being a Roman Catholic," he said.
"But, in my judgment, prayer is personal. And how I pray and how any American prays, for what reason, is their own decision. And it should be respected."
When asked to describe the "decisive moment" in his life that ultimately had led him to enter politics, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich told a moving story about growing up poor.
"I would say the decisive moment in my life was when my family was living in a car in the inner city and I thought about all the dreams that I could have as a child. And I decided, at an early age, that I was going to be someone," he said.
"And I've had a lot of help along the way to get to this stage, but I can tell you, as president, the American people will have someone who remembers where he came from and has the compassion in his heart to lift up everyone to make sure everyone has a chance."
Watch the Highlights
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