The Democratic presidential candidates Sunday night differed sharply on issues of national security and the Iraq war, with the initial vote to authorize the war — and last month's vote to provide more war funding — coming into focus in the second Democratic debate of the 2008 campaign.
In a far more combative evening than the campaign's initial debate, former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., said the nation is not safer than it was before Sept. 11, 2001, and chided his opponents — particularly Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. — for not pushing harder to end the war.
"They went quietly to the floor of the Senate, cast the right vote, but there is a difference between leadership and legislating," Edwards said. "Senator Clinton and Senator Obama did not say anything about how they were going to vote until they appeared on the floor of the Senate and voted. They were among the last people to vote."
Obama shot back by suggesting that Edwards is seeking to "play politics" with votes on war funding, and noted that he — alone among the top tier of presidential candidates — opposed the Iraq war before it began.
"I think, John, the fact is that I opposed this war from the start. So, you're about four and a half years late on leadership on this issue," Obama said.
Clinton continued to refuse to apologize for her vote to authorize the war, and said she doesn't regret her decision to not read the National Intelligence Estimate prepared for Congress on Iraq's weapons programs before the vote was authorized.
"I was thoroughly briefed. I knew all the arguments," she said. She also said the U.S. is safer than it was before 9/11 — though "not yet safe enough" — and repeated her refusal to apologize for her vote. "That was a sincere vote," she said.
Clinton also rejected Edwards' contention — repeated three times by the former North Carolina senator — that the "war on terror" is a slogan fit for a "bumper sticker."
"I have lived with the aftermath of 9/11, and I have seen firsthand the terrible damage that can be inflicted on our country by a small band of terrorists," Clinton said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., drew a distinction between himself and the other candidates by emphasizing the fact that he chose to vote for war funding in the Senate last month, casting it as a way to get vital supplies to troops.
"I knew the right political vote, but I tell you what — some things are worth losing elections over. ... I cannot and will not vote no to fund [troops]," Biden said. "We're funding the safety of those troops there until we can get 67 votes."
The debate, on the campus of Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., saw some intriguing campaign dynamics emerge. Edwards was feisty and combative in trying to portray himself as the strongest anti-war candidate, as he seeks to compete with the top two candidates — Clinton and Obama — by appealing to the party's liberal base.
Obama sought opportunities to emphasize his initial opposition to the war, while trying to appear firm in the face of threats to the nation's security. Clinton, meanwhile, was practically playing on a different, higher plane — befitting a front-runner — while pitching herself as the toughest candidate when it comes to national security.
"We all believe that we need to try to end this war," Clinton said. "Each of us is trying in our own way to bring the war to an end."
As with the first debate, all of the candidates saved their sharpest words for Bush. They agreed even on some controversial issues, with all of them saying, for instance, that they would repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. armed forces.
But key distinctions emerged on issues as various as healthcare, immigration, and how the U.S. should respond to the crisis in the Sudan. Edwards — who has proposed requiring all Americans to obtain healthcare — said Obama's health plan was not sufficient, and criticized candidates — including Clinton and Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M. — who have suggested that broad healthcare expansions are possible without tax increases.
"I don't think you can do all those things for nothing. That's not the truth," Edwards said.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., touted his proposal for a "carbon tax" to curb greenhouse gas emissions, while Biden called for public financing of elections. Richardson said he would consider boycotting the 2012 Olympics in Beijing if China doesn't cut its economic ties to Sudan.
Only one candidate, former senator Mike Gravel, D-Alaska, said he would support making English the country's official language. Obama used that question to expound on his vow to be a unifying force in the country.
"This is the kind of question that is designed precisely to divide us," Obama said. "And when we get distracted by those kinds of questions, I think we do a disservice to the American people."