Democrats strike friendly note in Iowa

6 candidates take similar stances in presidential debate

December 14, 2007|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun reporter

JOHNSTON, Iowa -- The Democratic contenders closed out the pre-Iowa debate season on a collegial note yesterday in a televised forum that did little, if anything, to alter the tight three-way contest here.

For the second day in a row, a Des Moines Register presidential debate was overshadowed by a candidate apology involving remarks from a media interview in another state.

Before the event, Hillary Clinton apologized personally to Barack Obama for comments that her New Hampshire co-chairman made about the Illinois senator's illegal drug use; the Clinton campaign official later resigned. On Tuesday, Republican candidate Mike Huckabee delivered a face-to-face apology to Mitt Romney for a disparaging comment he made about Romney's Mormon faith.

With exactly three weeks to go until Iowa's caucuses, six Democrats used their final debate to amplify messages they've been delivering in this state for months. They broke no new ground, agreeing on the need to bring the war in Iraq to a swift end so the money being spent there could be used for domestic needs, including early childhood education, expanded health care and more alternate sources of energy.

Appealing to what many see as a powerful desire for change among Democratic caucus-goers, Clinton and John Edwards, who narrowly trail Obama in recent polling, delivered gentle jabs at their main rivals over that dynamic.

Clinton said that neither "hoping" for change, a dig at Obama, nor "demanding it," a poke at Edwards, was enough.

"I believe you get it by working hard for change. That's what I've done my entire life. That's what I will do as president," said the New York senator and former first lady.

Similarly, Edwards, who is stressing populist themes in his second presidential try, took coded jabs at Clinton and Obama in arguing that "corporate power and corporate greed" are blocking the changes voters want to see in Washington.

"You can't make a deal with them. You can't hope that they're going to go away," Edwards said. Referring to his successful career as a trial lawyer in North Carolina, the former one-term senator said that he's "been fighting these people and winning my entire life. And if we do this together, rise up together, we can actually make absolutely certain, starting here in Iowa, that we make this country better than we left it."

At one point, Clinton gave a hearty, and prolonged, laugh when the moderator asked Obama how, with relatively little experience of his own, he intended to make a clean break with the past, especially since he's relying on some former Clinton administration officials for foreign policy advice.

Obama responded with a laugh of his own, prompting Clinton to ask him what was so funny.

"Well, Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me, as well," said Obama, to applause from the audience. "I want to gather up talent from everywhere."

In recent weeks, Obama has pulled marginally ahead of Clinton in Iowa, according to the most recent polling in the state, though the two remain statistically tied. Edwards, who finished a close second in Iowa four years ago and badly needs a victory here to keep his candidacy alive, is within striking distance in third place.

The rest of the Democrats are far behind, with less than 10 percent support in the Register's latest statewide poll.

In perhaps the toughest moment of an otherwise gentle debate, moderator Carolyn Washburn, the newspaper's editor, asked Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware about past gaffes that made him appear insensitive on racial matters.

Biden, who had already apologized repeatedly, said that his "credentials are as good as anyone who's ever run for president of the United States on civil rights."

"Hear, hear," said Clinton, to audience applause.

Obama chimed in "to provide some testimony, as they say in church, that Joe is on the right side of the issues and is fighting every day for a better America."

That friendly exchange, typical of the overall tone of the debate, also pointed up the unique nature of the contest for supremacy in Iowa.

Under arcane Democratic rules, backers of a candidate who fails to break 15 percent in a precinct must switch their votes to their second choice, or remain uncommitted. Precinct chairmen for the leading contenders will be working hard on caucus night to woo second-choice voters, who could wind up putting one of the leading candidates over the top if the race in Iowa remains extremely close.

paul.west@baltsun.com

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