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Democrats Sound Off on Iraq

September 27, 2007 at 6:50 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the Democrats debate in New Hampshire. NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was the second time Democrats gathered to debate in the nation’s first primary state. Last night’s setting was the campus of Dartmouth College.

NARRATOR: Here is Tim Russert.

TIM RUSSERT, Host, NBC’s “Meet the Press”: We have some big issues to talk about tonight, so let’s start right now.

KWAME HOLMAN: Moderator Tim Russert of NBC began by asking each candidate to pledge to have all U.S. troops out of Iraq by 2013. Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich readily agreed.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), Ohio: I want everyone to know, I want the American people to know, that I’ve been on this from the beginning, and I know that we can get out of there three months after I take office

KWAME HOLMAN: But the three candidates leading in the opinion polls all said “no.”

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I don’t want to make promises not knowing what the situation’s going to be three or four years out.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: It is very difficult to know what we’re going to be inheriting.

FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), Presidential Candidate: I cannot make that commitment.

Pulling out troops in Iraq

KWAME HOLMAN: But New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said he could. In fact, he wants all U.S. forces out of Iraq within one year.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), New Mexico: You cannot start the reconciliation of Iraq, a political settlement, an all-Muslim peacekeeping force to deal with security and boundaries and possibly this issue of a separation, which is a plan that I do believe makes sense, until we get all our troops out, because they have become targets.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Senator Joe Biden of Delaware said troops could leave under his plan to partition Iraq into three semi-autonomous states, a position the Senate endorsed earlier in the day.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: That will end the civil war. That will allow us to bring our troops home. That is the thing that will allow us to come home without leaving chaos behind.

KWAME HOLMAN: With a new poll showing New York Senator Hillary Clinton holding a wide lead in New Hampshire, she became the target of others. Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards went first.

JOHN EDWARDS: I heard Senator Clinton say on Sunday that she wants to continue combat missions in Iraq. To me, that's a continuation of the war. I do not think we should continue combat missions in Iraq.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: I said there may be a continuing counterterrorism mission, which, if it still exists, will be aimed at al-Qaida in Iraq. It may require combat, special operations forces or some other form of that. But the vast majority of our combat troops should be out.

Supporting Iraq resolutions

KWAME HOLMAN: Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel took on Clinton for voting to name the Revolutionary Guard in Iran a terrorist organization. He said the vote was a first step toward war.

FORMER SEN. MIKE GRAVEL (D), Presidential Candidate: My god, we're just starting a war right today. There was a vote in the Senate today. Joe Lieberman, who authored the Iraq resolution, has offered another resolution, and it is essentially a fig leaf to let George Bush go to war with Iran.

And I'm ashamed of you, Hillary, for voting for it. You're not going to get another shot at this, because what's happened if this war ensues, we invade, and they're looking for an excuse to do it.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: My understanding of the Revolutionary Guard in Iran is that it is promoting terrorism. And in what we voted for today, we will have an opportunity to designate it as a terrorist organization, which gives us the options to be able to impose sanctions on the primary leaders to try to begin to put some teeth into all this talk about dealing with Iran.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd challenged recently published comments by President Bush that he believes Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: This race is going to won by voters here in this state, in Iowa, and other caucus and primary states. Making predictions in September or August about who's going to win later on, I think, have proven to be rather faulty over the years. So I look very much forward to the kind of race that develops.

Clinton confronted with her husband

KWAME HOLMAN: As Clinton sought to deflect the criticism, moderator Russert caught her in a conflict.

TIM RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, this is the number-three man in al-Qaida. We know there's a bomb about to go off, and we have three days, and we know this guy knows where it is. Should there be a presidential exception to allow torture in that kind of situation?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: As a matter of policy, it cannot be American policy, period.

TIM RUSSERT: The guest who laid out this scenario for me with that proposed solution was William Jefferson Clinton last year. So he disagrees with you.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, he's not standing here right now.

TIM RUSSERT: So there is a disagreement?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I'll talk to him later.

KWAME HOLMAN: Russert also devoted considerable time to Clinton's newly announced health care plan, in light of her attempts to win universal coverage during the early 1990s.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, Tim, I'm proud that I tried to get universal health care back in '93 and '94. It was a tough fight. It was kind of a lonely fight, but it was worth trying. But I've come back with a different plan that I believe is much better reflective of what people want.

KWAME HOLMAN: However, Illinois Senator Barack Obama said the causes of Clinton's previous failure could not be overlooked.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: If it was lonely for Hillary, part of the reason it was lonely, Hillary, was because you closed the door to a lot of potential allies in that process. At that time, 80 percent of Americans already wanted universal health care, but they didn't feel like they were let into the process.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senator Biden agreed.

SEN. JOE BIDEN: I think it's a reality that it's more difficult, because there's a lot of very good things that come with all the great things that President Clinton did, but there's also a lot of the old stuff that comes back. It's kind of hard. When I say old stuff, I'm referring to policy, policy.

KWAME HOLMAN: The eight Democratic presidential hopefuls won't debate again for a month, while some, but not all, of the Republican candidates have agreed to meet tonight in Baltimore.