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Democratic Candidates Battle for Iowa’s Support

August 20, 2007 at 6:30 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Yesterday’s encounter in Des Moines was the seventh major Democratic debate this year, and the first to be held in the critical early caucus state of Iowa. So all eight candidates were on hand. And with recent Iowa polls showing three of them — Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards — in a dead heat, ABC News moderator George Stephanopoulos began by taking aim at one of them.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC News Moderator: Is Barack Obama ready to be president, experienced enough to be president?

MARGARET WARNER: Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd sounded skeptical.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: We’re asking Democrats across the country to choose amongst us here who is best able to lead. The experience, the background, the demonstrated success in dealing with both domestic and foreign policy issues are critical questions. You’re not going to have time in January of ’09 to get ready for this job; you’ve got to be ready immediately for it.

MARGARET WARNER: Illinois Senator Obama responded by making light of the jabs from his rivals.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: Well, you know, to prepare for this debate, I rode in the bumper cars at the state fair and…

Rooting out al-Qaida in Pakistan

MARGARET WARNER: Questions about the one-term senator's experience have grown since he said earlier this month that, if Pakistan's government didn't root out al-Qaida terrorists in its tribal regions, the United States should. Obama yesterday didn't back down.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I think that, if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and we've exhausted all other options, we should take him out before he plans to kill another 3,000 Americans. I think that's common sense.

So there's one other thing that I believe, and that is that we should describe for the American people, both in presidential debates, as well as president, what our foreign policy is and what we're going to do. We shouldn't have strategic ambiguity with the American people when it comes to describing how we're going to deal with the most serious national security issues that we face.

MARGARET WARNER: Obama's also been criticized by Hillary Clinton for flatly ruling out the use of nuclear weapons against al-Qaida strongholds. But Stephanopoulos called out Senator Clinton for similarly ruling out a nuclear attack on Iran during her New York Senate race last year.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So Senator Obama rules out using them against al-Qaida; you rule out using them against Iran. What's the principal difference there?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: Well, George, you've got to put it into context. I was asked specifically about what was very clearly an effort by the Bush-Cheney administration to drum up support for military action against Iran. This was not a hypothetical; this was a brush-back against this administration, which has been reckless and provocative to America's damage, in my opinion.

So I think there's a big difference, and I think it's a difference that really goes to the heart of whether we should be using hypotheticals. I mean, one thing that I agree with is we shouldn't use hypotheticals. You know, words do matter.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: It is not hypothetical that al-Qaida has established base camps in the hills between Afghanistan and Pakistan. That was acknowledged in the national intelligence estimates, and every foreign policy expert understands that. No military expert would advise that we use nuclear weapons to deal with them, but we do have to deal with that problem.

Approaches to ending the Iraq war

MARGARET WARNER: When the discussion turned to the war in Iraq, all the candidates agreed the United States should end the current occupation, but they sparred over what a withdrawal should look like. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson highlighted differences among the candidates over how quickly U.S. troops should leave and whether any should remain behind.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), New Mexico: My plan has diplomacy, a tripartite entity within Iraq, a reconciliation among the three groups. I would have a division of oil revenues. I'd have an all-Muslim peacekeeping force, headed by the United Nations, a donor conference.

But none of this peace and peace-building can begin until all of our troops are out. We have different positions here. I believe that, if you leave any residual forces, then none of the peace that we are trying to bring can happen.

MARGARET WARNER: Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich agreed that no residual U.S. force should remain.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), Ohio: We cannot leave more troops there. We cannot privatize Iraq's oil. We cannot partition that country and expect there's going to be peace. We need a president who understands that, one who's been right from the start, and one who has shown the judgment, the wisdom, and the maturity to take the right stand at the time that it counted most.

MARGARET WARNER: Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel suggested an even more radical approach.

FORMER SEN. MIKE GRAVEL (D), Presidential Candidate: I'll tell you what, pull everybody out and turn to the Iranians. Who helped us defeat the Taliban initially? It was the Iranians. So if we don't bring the Iranians to help us, or the Syrians, or the Saudi Arabia, of course it's going to be a disaster. They have more at stake in that area of the world than we do.

MARGARET WARNER: But Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware said proposals for a quick and complete withdrawal were unrealistic.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: ... if we leave Iraq and we leave it in chaos, there will be regional war. The regional war will engulf us for a generation. It'll bring in the Shia; it'll bring in the Saudis; it'll bring in the Iranians; it'll bring in the Turks.

The bottom line is, it's going to one full year if you argued tomorrow to get every single troop out. And when you begin to take the troops out, what are you going to do with the 4,000 or 5,000 civilians that are left inside the Green Zone?

Edwards highlights war, lobbyists

MARGARET WARNER: Former North Carolina Senator Edwards tried to inject a conciliatory note.

FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), Presidential Candidate: Any Democratic president will end this war. That's what we know. And secondly...

The differences between us, whether it's Senator Clinton or Senator Dodd or Governor Richardson or Senator Biden -- all of whom I have enormous respect for -- the differences between all of us are very small compared to the differences between us and the Republican candidates, who the best I can tell are George Bush on steroids.

MARGARET WARNER: But Edwards did go on the attack, singling out Clinton once again for refusing to renounce campaign contributions from lobbyists.

JOHN EDWARDS: Here's what I believe: I don't believe you can change this country without taking on very entrenched interests in Washington, including lobbyists, that stand between us and the change that America needs. And I don't believe you can do it by sitting at a table, negotiating with them, and trying to bring them together.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: There is this artificial distinction that people are trying to make. Don't take money from lobbyists, but take money from the people who employ and hire lobbyists and give them their marching orders. Those are the people that are really going to be pushing back.

The role of prayer

MARGARET WARNER: A late question, e-mailed from a voter, asked the candidates if they believed prayer had the power to prevent disasters.

JOHN EDWARDS: The answer to the question is, no, I don't. I prayed before my 16-year-old son died; I prayed before Elizabeth was diagnosed with cancer. I think there are some things that are beyond our control.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: We may not have the power to prevent a hurricane, but we do have the power to make sure that the levees are properly reinforced and we've got a sound emergency plan. And so part of what I pray for is the strength and the wisdom to be able to act on those things that I can control, and that's what I think has been lacking sometimes in our government. We've got to express those values through our government, not just through our religious institutions.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: 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. And so, in my view, I think it's important that we have faith, that we have values, but if I'm president, I'm not going to wear my religion on my sleeve and impose it on anybody.

MARGARET WARNER: Kucinich used the question to inject one of the debate's lighter moments.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: George, I've been standing here for the last 45 minutes praying to God you were going to call on me.

MARGARET WARNER: The candidates won't join in another debate until after Labor Day.