KWAME HOLMAN: It is still more than eight months before the first primary votes are cast, but the scene last evening outside the Martin Luther King, Jr., Auditorium on the campus of South Carolina State University befit an Election Day rally.
Inside, the eight Democratic presidential candidates came together for their first debate, moderated by Brian Williams of NBC News and broadcast nationally on MSNBC.
His first questions were about the Iraq war. And he asked former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who repeatedly has apologized for his 2002 vote authorizing the war, if he faulted New York Senator Hillary Clinton for not doing the same.
FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), Presidential Candidate: I mean, Senator Clinton and anyone else who voted for this war has to search themselves and decide whether they believe they voted the right way. If so, they can support their vote. If they believe they didn't, I think it's important to be straightforward and honest...
KWAME HOLMAN: Williams then gave Senator Clinton the chance to respond.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: Brian, I take responsibility for my vote. Obviously, I did as good a job I could at the time. It was a sincere vote, based on the information available to me. And I've said many times that, that if I knew then what I now know, I would not have voted that way.
KWAME HOLMAN: The debate came on the same day the Senate passed an emergency Iraq war spending bill that includes a timetable for withdrawing the troops. But Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich said not even that bill was strong enough.
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), Ohio: I think it's inconsistent to tell the American people that you oppose the war, and yet you continue to vote to fund the war. Because every time you vote to fund the war, you're re-authorizing the war all over again.
KWAME HOLMAN: Kucinich also challenged Illinois Senator Barack Obama on comments he recently made about Iran, that a military option should not be taken off the table if Iran pursues nuclear weapons ambitions.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I think it would be a profound mistake for us to initiate a war with Iran. But have no doubt: Iran possessing nuclear weapons will be a major threat to us and to the region. I understand that, but they're in the process of developing it. And I don't think that's disputed by any expert. They are the largest state sponsor of terrorism...
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: It is disputed by...
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: ... Hezbollah and Hamas.
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: It is disputed.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: And there is no contradiction, Dennis, between...
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: It is disputed.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Let me finish. There is no contradiction between us taking seriously the need, as you do, to want to strengthen our alliances around the world. But I think it is important for us to also recognize that, if we have nuclear proliferators around the world that potentially can place a nuclear weapon into the hands of terrorists, that is a profound security threat for America, and one that we have to take seriously.
KWAME HOLMAN: Kucinich got some help from former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, who urged diplomatic engagement with Iran, rather than military force or sanctions.
FORMER SEN. MIKE GRAVEL (D), Presidential Candidate: These things don't work. They don't work. We need to recognize them. And you know something? Who is the greatest violator of the non-proliferation treaty? The United States of America. We signed a pledge that we would begin to disarm, and we're not doing it. We're expanding our nukes. Who the hell are we going to nuke? Tell me, Barack. Barack, who are you wanting to nuke?
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I'm not planning to nuke anybody right now, Mike, I promise.
MIKE GRAVEL: Good. Good, we're safe.
KWAME HOLMAN: NBC's Williams also asked the candidates how they would respond to another terrorist attack within the United States. First to Senator Obama.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, the first thing we'd have to do is make sure that we've got an effective emergency response, something that this administration failed to do when we had a hurricane in New Orleans.
The second thing is to make sure that we've got good intelligence, a, to find out that we don't have other threats and attacks potentially out there, and, b, to find out, do we have any intelligence on who might have carried it out so that we can take potentially some action to dismantle that network?
KWAME HOLMAN: Senator Clinton followed.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: If we are attacked, and we can determine who was behind that attack, and if there were nations that supported or gave material aid to those who attacked us, I believe we should quickly respond.
KWAME HOLMAN: The 90-minute debate, with no opening or closing statements by the candidates, clipped along at a steady pace. In addition to foreign policy, Brian Williams asked about a variety of domestic issues.
On health care, a subject polls suggest will figure prominently in 2008, Senator Edwards said it was important for the candidates to lay out specific details, thought to be a veiled criticism of, among others, Senator Obama.
JOHN EDWARDS: And I think we have a responsibility, if you want to be president of the United States, to tell the American people what it is you want to do. Rhetoric's not enough. High-falutin' language is not enough.
And my plan would require employers to cover all their employees or pay into a fund that covers the cracks in the health care system; mental health parity, which others have spoken about; chronic care; preventative care; long-term care; subsidizes health care costs.
KWAME HOLMAN: But New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, touting his experience as an executive, worried about how to pay for universal health care coverage.
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), New Mexico: Well, as Democrats, I just hope that we always don't think of new taxes to pay for programs.
This is what I would do. And I'm a governor. I deal with this issue every day. In our health care plan, my new health care plan, no new bureaucracy. Every American shares, along with businesses, the state, and the federal government.
I would focus on prevention. I would also ensure that the first thing we do is deal with the bureaucracy and inefficiencies in our health care system.
KWAME HOLMAN: Richardson, rated highly by the National Rifle Association, also was asked to explain his support of gun rights in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings in which 33 people were killed.
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: I'm a Westerner. I'm a governor of New Mexico. The Second Amendment is precious in the West. But I want to just state for the record: A vast, vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding.
I was for instant background checks. We have to make sure that those background checks are state and local, states are properly funded to be able to detect those problems.
KWAME HOLMAN: The candidates also touched on a number of hot-button cultural issues. Delaware Senator Joe Biden was asked about last week's Supreme Court decision upholding a ban on a controversial abortion procedure.
SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: The truth of the matter is that this decision was intellectually dishonest. I think it's a rare procedure that should only be available when the woman's life and health is at stake.
But what this court did, it took that decision, and it put a Trojan horse in, through actually dishonest reasoning, lay the groundwork for undoing Roe v. Wade.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd addressed gay marriage. He supports civil unions, which are legal in his state.
SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: I have two very young daughters who one day may have a different sexual orientation than their parents. How would I like them treated as adults? What kind of housing, what kind of homes, what kind of jobs, what kind of retirement would they be allowed to have?
I think, if you ask yourself that question, you come to the conclusion that I hope most Americans would: that they ought to be able to have those loving relationships sanctioned.
KWAME HOLMAN: And the debate had its moments of levity. Williams asked Senator Biden, known for being somewhat long-winded, how he would keep from making any verbal gaffes.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, Host, "NBC Nightly News": Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, Senator?
SEN. JOE BIDEN: Yes.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Thank you, Senator Biden.
KWAME HOLMAN: These candidates expect to participate in several more debates between now and next year's primaries. The next scheduled debate will be in New Hampshire in June.