Each of six Democratic presidential candidates, appearing at Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's annual steak fry in Indianola, argued to the most active core of party activists in Iowa Sunday that they can end the war in Iraq.
The event, on a sun-splashed rural hillside in Warren County, began the fall sprint to Iowa's leadoff nominating caucuses on a high note. An estimated 18,000 Democratic activists attended what was in effect a political festival reflecting optimism about their party's chance of retaking the White House.
While the candidates pointed out their differences on the war, a number of undecided caucusgoers said they are not going to decide whom they will support based on the individual candidates' Iraq plans.
"I want to know there's a plan for withdrawal, so troops can come home in a way that doesn't leave the country completely destabilized," said Iowa City Democrat Nikki Neems. "I feel like I'm looking at other issues to help me decide, because whichever Democrat wins, they will fix it." Attending Harkin's 30th annual fundraiser were Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
The six candidates who attended have been campaigning aggressively in Iowa, where the caucuses are scheduled to begin the series of nominating events next year.
All of the candidates, who were held to 15-minute speeches, at least touched on their plans to bring troops home, each urging far more rapid redeployment of U.S. troops than Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq. President Bush said Wednesday he planned to accept Petraeus' call for modest reductions in U.S. troops in Iraq by Christmas and the withdrawal by next summer of about 30,000 of the more than 160,000 there now.
Edwards was the most pointed in his criticism of Bush and challenge to his rivals, saying the president had "destroyed America's reputation in the world" and challenging his Democratic opponents in Congress to tie paying for the war with a schedule for withdrawal.
"Every single funding bill that goes to President Bush should have a timetable for withdrawal. If he vetoes it, they should send another bill with a timetable for withdrawal," Edwards said. "Until this president is forced to start taking troops out of Iraq, no timetable, no funding.
Obama, who had resisted measures to tie money for the war to a deadline for withdrawal, said Sunday he would no longer support funding measures in the Senate that do not include deadlines.
"We are going to bring an end to this war and I will fight hard in the United States Senate to make sure we don't pass any funding bill that does not have a deadline," Obama told the crowd.
By making the statement, Obama joined only Dodd, who has been critical of Clinton and Obama for their resistance to tying war appropriations to a schedule.
Clinton has resisted pressure to insist that paying for the war's expenses be contingent on a firm deadline for having soldiers out.
"Are you ready to end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home, as safely and responsibly as possible?" Clinton said, prompting cheers from the crowd.
Of the six candidates, Richardson has proposed the most aggressive plan to pull troops out of Iraq: All U.S. forces in six to eight months.