Obama, Clinton Accused of Timidity

Barack Obama styles himself as the candidate free of typical Washington thinking.

But in the view of Ben & Jerry's co-founder Ben Cohen, the freshman Democratic senator is just as enmeshed in outdated thinking as the dynastic presidential rival he hopes to topple.

"Conventional political wisdom is that if you talk about reducing spending on the Pentagon you become weak on defense -- that it's political suicide," Cohen told ABC News. "Despite the fact that we've proven that the population support this, they still believe it."

"And, you know," he added, "I think that's what Obama thinks."

Cohen is more than an ice-cream mogul. He heads Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, a group whose goal is to shift $60 billion in federal funds away from the Pentagon and toward education, health care, energy independence, job training and deficit reduction.

To influence the 2008 presidential race, Cohen's field organizers have attended more than 500 campaign events and have found 9,000 Iowans who have signed pledges to support the candidate who wins the group's endorsement later this fall.

In the past, the Iowa caucuses have been so sparsely attended that even a small number of votes can make a big difference.

In 2004, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was catapulted to the Democratic presidential nomination after defeating John Edwards by roughly 6,900 votes in Iowa.

Getting Specific on Reducing Weapons

To win the group's blessing, a candidate must get specific in pledging to phase out nine different weapons systems.

"We deliberately did that so we can actually hold their feet to the fire,' said Cohen. "It's much more of a confirmed position than just 'Oh, yeah. I'd cut Pentagon waste.'"

Cohen's group is endorsing a weapons-reducing plan created by Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former Reagan assistant secretary of defense.

Korb said the U.S. government could save $25 billion by reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal from 10,000 warheads to no more than 1,000; $23 billion from scaling back development of weapons like the F/A-22 fighter jet and the DDG-1000 stealth Destroyer ship; $5 billion from eliminating two active Air Force wings and one carrier group; and another $7 billion through additional Pentagon efficiencies.

Favorites Emerge

Cohen's group will not make an endorsement until November, but favorites are already emerging.

While Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton have voted against Iraq War funding that does not include a timetable for withdrawal, they have only backed $5 billion worth of Pentagon cuts, according to Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. Those savings would be achieved by ceasing the development of the "reliable replacement warhead" nuclear weapon that President Bush supports, and by scrapping construction of a new plutonium processing facility.

"The tendencies of the front-runners is to not take positions on anything," said Cohen. "It's to try to stay as vague as possible."

Cohen sees Edwards as "a lot freer" of the conventional wisdom than Obama and Clinton are. The former North Carolina senator has agreed so far to $22 billion in Pentagon cuts, according to Cohen's group.

In addition to the cuts backed by Clinton and Obama, Edwards would also reduce so-called "Star Wars" to research and development only, cancel the F-22 supersonic stealth fighter, cancel the development of "killer satellites" and space lasers, cancel the development of the V-22 Osprey, an airplane-helicopter hybrid, and eliminate Defense Department earmarks.

"I think that it's very possible that we might end up endorsing him," Cohen said of Edwards.

Can Richardson Catch Edwards?

Even though Cohen has been impressed by the direction Edwards is looking to go in, he faces stiff competition from Bill Richardson.

The New Mexico governor has so far agreed to $39.9 billion in Pentagon cuts, according to Sensible Priorities.

In addition to the cuts backed by Edwards, Richardson would also cancel development of the C-130J transport plane; slow down development of the F-35, a joint aircraft for the Navy, Air Force, and Marines; and cancel a $3 billion Virginia class submarine.

"He is a very attractive 'sensible priorities' candidate," said Cohen of Richardson. "I met him personally in Iowa. And, he was saying, 'This stuff is just common sense.'"

To wrestle the endorsement away from Edwards, Richardson has to prove a certain level of viability in polls of Iowa caucus-goers.

In an ABC News/Washington Post poll of Democratic caucus-goers in August, Obama, with 27 percent support, and Edwards and Clinton, with 26 percent each, were running neck and neck.

Richardson was in fourth place, with 11 percent support.

Cohen does not insist on Richardson catching Edwards, but he does want to see him "within striking distance" before the group endorses him.

Richardson's campaign is hungry for the group's endorsement.

"They're everywhere in Iowa," Richardson spokesman Tom Reynolds told ABC News. "We're happy to have their endorsement. We are not concerned that we would be labeled weak on defense. We think we have a tough approach on national security."

Richardson personally aligned himself with Cohen's group during Thursday's AARP/PBS forum in Davenport, Iowa.

"I'm wearing a pin of a group called Sensible Priorities," said Richardson. "I want to establish those priorities of human need in this country."

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., has gone even further than Richardson in calling for Pentagon cuts.

The chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has agreed to $41.4 billion in Pentagon cuts, according to Cohen's group.

While Biden is undecided on whether to cancel the Virginia class submarine and whether to slow development of the F-35, he saves more money than Richardson's package of cuts by favoring the reduction of the U.S. nuclear stockpile from about 10,000 warheads to an arsenal of 1,000.

Even though Sensible Priorities is focused on the baseline Pentagon budget and not on the supplementals that have been used to fund the Iraq War, political observers believe it is hard to see Biden winning the group's endorsement. Beyond his meager 2 percent support in ABC's Iowa poll, the Delaware Democrat has been an outspoken proponent of funding the Iraq war even if it means doing so without a timetable for troop withdrawal.

Will Cohen's People Stick Together?

While 9,000 Iowans have the potential to affect the state's caucuses, the key to determining whether that influence will actually come to pass is how those supporters are distributed. Iowa political observers warn that the impact of Cohen's group could be diluted if they all caucus in the same precincts because each precinct has a finite number of delegates.

Another key question for Cohen's group is whether the 9,000 who have signed pledges will actually take cues from the group's leadership on whom to support or whether they will be drawn, for example, to Obama for his early opposition to the Iraq War or to Clinton for her long-standing commitment to universal health care.

Asked how he plans to keep his 9,000 supporters onboard, Cohen said the group is planning to personally visit each of them following the November endorsement.

"We're working together," said Cohen, "to hang tough and hang in there and stick with it."

He acknowledges, however, that some may defect: "You can't chain 'em."