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.
"I would bring all the troops out of Iraq, no residual forces. And only then can the change start a political settlement," Richardson said.
Harkin's annual fundraiser, which has grown into a nationally watched autumn political ritual, served up plenty of partisan red meat, never mind the real thing. More than two tons of steak sizzled from massive grills, which kicked out enough food to feed more than 12,000 people, according to organizers' estimates.
Campaign aides urged Iowa supporters to attend the event, with some of the campaigns buying up blocs of the $30 tickets.
Bob and Mary Leborde of Perry sipped cups of beer and waited for the candidates to take the stage, but both said the gradations the candidates discuss about getting out of Iraq do not matter to them.
"Obama was against it from the beginning and that appeals to me," said Bob Leborde, a railroad employee whose union has endorsed Clinton.
"But I don't blame the people who voted for it," Mary Leborde said. "I would have voted for it, based on the information they had." Biden, who has called for a three-state federation in Iraq, suggested activists pay close attention to the candidates' plans.
"One of us on this stage is going to have to end the war (Bush) started and that is ? that is deadly serious," Biden said.
Edwards and Clinton have alternated for the lead in Iowa in recent polls, with Obama in third and Richardson in fourth. In national polls, Clinton has led, with Obama trailing her and Edwards in third.
Muscatine County Democrat Don Paulson, who is undecided, said he is less concerned about backing a perceived Washington outsider than picking someone who can withstand what he expects to be a formidable Republican attack campaign on the eventual nominee.
"Whoever it is, they are going to get hit with the same stuff," said Paulson, co-chairman of the Muscatine County Democrats. "I don't know who the best one is to battle that."
Here are some brief highlights of each speech given by Democratic presidential candidates:
•Barack Obama:The Illinois senator emphasized that change in the United States is not dependent upon electing a Democrat as president.
Reforms that would halt the influence of powerful special interest groups and "change from the bottom up," are essential, he said.
Obama promised that, if elected, he would bring about universal health care for all Americans by the end of his first term. He also pledged to end the war. He vowed to continue, as a senator, to continue working to end the war.
"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" to bring troops home, he told the crowd.
•Bill Richardson:The New Mexico governor told the crowd that the war in Iraq is the fundamental issue that's facing the American people.
Specifically, Richardson said some plans that would bring combat troops home but leave peace-keeping soldiers known as residual troops, is wrong.
Richardson's staff, last week, criticized Obama's war plans for leaving such troops behind.
"My position is clear, we bring the troops out within six to eight months but we leave no troops behind," Richardson said.
Richardson also highlighted his goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve education and to create universal health care for all Americans.
"No matter who you are, whether you're a ditch digger, whether you're a cook, a maid a teacher or a CEO, universal health care should be a fundamental human right in this country," Richardson said.
•Hillary Clinton:The New York senator said, as president, she would push to end the war, bring troops home and restore the United States' world reputation.
"I will not wait until I'm inaugurated ? the day after I'm elected I will have distinguished members of both parties travel around the world with a distinct message: The era of cowboy diplomacy is over, America is back," she said.
Clinton also vowed to bring about economic rejuvenation, specifically for lower-paid Americans. Embracing ways to alleviate global warming with renewable fuels can help create jobs, she said.
"I believe is we're serious about energy and global warming we can put millions of Americans to work and once again have a rising middle class," Clinton said.
•Chris Dodd:The U.S. senator from Connecticut told the crowd that country is far too dependent upon non-renewable energy. He also said that the number of Americans without health insurance is an embarrassment.
"It is shameful in this country that more than 50 million of our fellow citizens at this very hour have no health care in this country at all," Dodd said. "That will change; it must change if we care about the future of our country." Dodd also championed unions, saying that strong union households are essential to the country. He said that Democrats need to work to bring all Americans together.
"Every single one of us knows ? that the answers to the issues that we confront will not be solved with one party, it will take the ability to bring Americans together," he said.
•John Edwards: The former North Carolina senator told the crowd that the current Senate makeup should continue to send president war funding bills with withdrawal time lines, even if they are vetoed.
"No timetable, no funding. It is time to bring this war to an end," Edwards said to a cheering crowd.
Edwards also embraced his previous stands on universal health care. He told the crowd that Washington politics have to be reformed to reduce the power of powerful lobby groups like insurance and drug companies "I don't believe you can sit at the table with drug companies, insurance companies and their lobbyists and negotiate an insurance plan for America ... if you give them a seat at the table, they will take all the food," Edwards said.
•Joe Biden:The U.S. senator from Delaware focused largely upon his plan to end the war.
Biden briefly outlined his plan for Iraq, which gives feuding groups the power to govern themselves. The central government would oversee common interests such as border security and distribution of oil revenues.
"Four years and $20 billion later, the Iraqi army cannot stand on its own," Biden said.
He also urged is party to stay away from divisive politics and advocated for public financing of elections to end the "obscene amount" being spent on elections.