GOFFSTOWN, N.H. – The fight over Iraq flared at Sunday night’s Democratic debate when John Edwards trashed rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for a lack of leadership – and got smacked down for having none himself.
In a debate largely dominated by a polished and relaxed Clinton, it was the exchange between Edwards and Obama that was the most memorable.
Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, went after Clinton and Obama for refusing to say they would vote against last week’s Iraq spending bill until the last possible moment.
“They went quietly to the floor of the Senate. They were among the last people to vote,” he said.
“They cast the right vote, and I applaud them for that. … But there is a difference between leadership and legislating.”
Obama then turned to Edwards and hit him with his 2002 vote to go to war.
“John, the fact is that I opposed this war from the start,” Obama said. “So you are about 4 1/2 years late on leadership on this issue.”
Clinton, standing between them, happily stayed out of the crossfire.
“She stayed above the fray,” said an obviously pleased strategist Howard Wolfson, who gloated over the head-butting between her two chief rivals.
Clinton repeatedly minimized her differences with her Democratic rivals and pivoted instead to attack President Bush.
“It’s important to point out this is George Bush’s war,” she said. “He started the war. He mismanaged the war. He escalated the war. And he refuses to end the war.”
Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, the longest shot on the stage, was having none of it.
“Sure, it’s George Bush’s war, but it’s the Democrats’ war also,” he said.
“They made a political decision to vote the way they voted. That disqualifies them for president.”
Noting that the death toll of U.S. soldiers is approaching 3,500, he said more service members have died than there were victims of Sept. 11 “because of their decision.”
Both Clinton and Edwards refused to say they made a mistake neglecting to read a key intelligence report on Iraq before voting for the war.
“I feel like I was totally briefed,” Clinton said. “I sought out dissenting opinions, as well as talking to people in previous administrations and outside experts.”
Obama said at least one key senator, Bob Graham of Florida, decided to vote against the war based on the report, “so obviously there was some pertinent information there.”
On whether he would order the assassination of Osama bin Laden if he were located, Obama jumped on Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s equivocating to redeem his wishy-washy answer in the first debate.
“When you’ve got a military target like bin Laden, you take him out,” Obama said. “You do it swiftly and surely.”
All the candidates said they would repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military.
Democrats learned that Bill Clinton has a future in the next administration even if his wife doesn’t.
All the candidates said they would put him to work as a global envoy of some sort.