Democrats Clash Over Health Care
Living up to his pledge to cut back on presidential debates, Sen. Barack Obama skipped a panel on health care and economic issues last night in Iowa -- leaving the Democratic frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, to draw fire from the rest of the field all by herself.
Just five of the invited contenders joined the AARP forum in Davenport. But sparks flew nonetheless. Sen. Joe Biden warned that Republicans will attack any new Clinton health care plan with a campaign similar to the "Harry and Louise" advertising blitz that helped sink her last effort in 1994.
"They're going to spend half a trillion this time," Biden (D-Del.) said.
Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) took credit for prodding Clinton toward releasing the proposal for universal health care coverage that she unveiled on Monday. He boasted that he had announced his first.
"I'm very proud of the fact that six, seven months later, Sen. Clinton came out with a plan that is very similar to mine," Edwards said.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Gov. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) also participated in the panel, which was broadcast on public television and moderated by newscaster Judy Woodruff.
Clinton (D-N.Y.) had steered the political agenda all week after releasing her health insurance proposal to require coverage for all individuals -- a scaled-back and less detailed program than the one she failed to pass more than 13 years ago. She largely avoided criticizing her rivals on the issue on Thursday night, embracing the similarities between the Democratic plans and accusing Republicans of falling short. And she indirectly rebutted Edwards? claim that she was following him on the issue.
"Well, been there, done that," she said of health care reform.
Referring to her earlier attempt, Clinton said: "It was kind of lonely back then -- I think it's tremendous that we have unanimity here. That was a lonely struggle all those year ago." But now, she said, universal health care "is the accepted set of convictions for the Democratic party. Compare that to the Republicans -- they don't have a clue, or a willingness to talk about or move toward what we are committed to."
Biden gave a particularly feisty performance. He needled Richardson for claiming he could run the country because he had run a relatively small state.
"He'd make a great secretary of state," Biden said of Richardson.
Then Biden -- who has been running in the single digits in national polls -- volunteered that some people haven't taken his candidacy seriously, either.
"I love Hillary Clinton," Biden chirped.
"I've been getting beat up because I'm always saying nice things about her -- they think I want to be her secretary of state," Biden said, then went on to criticize Clinton for failing to build a consensus on health care policy in the last decade.
"What's changed to make you think Hillary's going to be able to pull together 15 percent of Republicans?" Biden challenged.
With less than four months left until the first ballots are cast in the Democratic primary contest, the candidates are running at full throttle, beginning to challenge either other sharply -- and shed some of their timidity. Perhaps the boldest move was Obama's. By skipping the debate in order to fundraise and campaign elsewhere, he risked the ire of Iowa voters and particularly seniors, who typically make up most of the 100,000 or so caucusgoers in the state.
--Anne E. Kornblut
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