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While supporting Biden's sentiment that troops could not hastily be withdrawn, Obama used the discussion on Iraq to hammer home his frequent point that he did not vote to authorize the war.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."
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."