Iran is Topic A in Democratic Debate
DES MOINES, Dec. 4 -- New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton faced repeated criticism here Tuesday for supporting a Senate resolution on Iran that her rivals said gave encouragement to saber-rattling rhetoric from President Bush. She responded by accusing one of her opponents of making an "outlandish" charge for purely political reasons.
The disagreement came in the context of a new intelligence report released Monday that said Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The report directly contradicted assertions by administration officials about the growing nuclear threat presented by Iran and produced a clear divide between Clinton and six other Democrats who debated here Tuesday afternoon.
The Democrats uniformly criticized Bush's rhetoric toward Iran, but former North Carolina senator John Edwards said Clinton's September vote for a resolution urging the administration to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization amounted to agreement with Bush's worldview on terrorism.
Clinton said her vote was aimed at encouraging diplomacy and deterring the administration from using military force against the Iranians. She sharply objected to Edwards's characterization of the vote.
"I understand politics, and I understand making outlandish political charges, but this really goes way too far," Clinton responded. "Having designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, we've actually seen some changes in their behavior."
But Clinton found few allies among her rivals, none of whom had joined her in support of the resolution, which easily passed the Senate in September. "There's no evidence -- none, zero that this declaration caused any change in action on the part of the Iranian government," Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden said.
In general, the debate was far less contentious than other recent encounters involviong the candidates. The Democrats found common cause in attacking the president's approach to Iran. Only a few weeks ago he warned of a possible World War III if Iran were not prevented from achieving its nuclear ambitions, and the Democrats seized on the new report to set out their differences with the administration.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama said that while Iran remains a threat to its neighbors, the administration needed a new policy. "It is absolutely clear that this administration and President Bush continues to not let facts get in the way of his ideology ..... ," he said. "They should have stopped the saber rattling; should have never started it. And they need, now, to aggressively move on the diplomatic front." Tuesday's debate was unlike any of the many other candidate forums held this year. Sponsored by National Public Radio and Iowa Public Radio, the debate was not aired on television and did not include an audience.
The moderators, NPR's Michelle Norris, Steve Inskeep and Robert Siegel, kept the two-hour event focused on three broad topics -- Iran, relations with China and immigration -- and the candidates responded accordingly with a more conversational tone that nonetheless set out differences, particularly on Iran.
The debate came amid a change in tone by Clinton, who decided over the weekend to start challenging Obama's character and record in the face of polls here that show the Illinois senator gathering momentum and her support, particularly among women, slipping. Iowa, whose caucuses will be held on Jan. 3, is a three-way race between Clinton, Obama and Edwards.
The debate also included Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, who got the biggest laugh of the afternoon; Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who repeatedly said he was the person on stage with the most consistent record of opposing Bush on national security and economic policy; and former Alaska senator Mike Gravel. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was forced to skip the debate because he was attending a memorial service for an Iowan and Korean War veteran whose remains he helped recover from the North Korean government.
The discussion on China produced few differences among the Democrats. They called for tougher enforcement of trade laws to force the economic relationship between the two countries onto a more level playing field. They also said the United States must puts its federal fiscal house in order to reduce China's economic leverage.
At one point, as the debate turned to the question of what steps they would ask Americans to take to send China a message that it must abide by stricter economic, environmental and safety standards, Edwards was asked whether he would put toys from China under the Christmas tree for his children this year.
"My kids will not have toys coming from China," he said.
Amid chatter from the candidates, Dodd, whose wife and two young children have moved to Iowa to join him on the campaign trail, drew a laugh from the others with his quip, "I'm buying Iowa toys. They're going to eat Iowa food."
In previous debates, immigration produced major clashes over the question of whether illegal immigrants should be eligible for drivers licenses. In Tuesday's debate, that topic was not raised, and the candidates found themselves in general agreement on the need for comprehensive immigration reform.
During the discussion on China, Clinton was asked whether as first lady she had offered her husband advice on foreign policy. "I certainly did," she replied.
Then, with a rhetorical flourish, she appeared to be looking ahead to her own presidency, referring to her husband's terms in office as the "first Clinton administration." She added, "I was deeply involved in being part of the Clinton team in the first Clinton administration."
-- Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut
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