CONCORD, New Hampshire Democratic presidential contender Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday attacked President George W. Bush for "arrogance and incompetence" in Iraq but faced tough questions over her own vote to authorize the war.
On her first visit in a decade to the state that helps kick off the 2008 White House race, Clinton told voters in New Hampshire that Iraq was a challenge because of "the arrogance and incompetence of our administration in Washington."
At a town hall meeting of about 300 people in the city of Berlin, the New York senator was asked by one participant to repudiate her 2002 Senate vote for a measure that cleared the way for the March 2003 invasion.
"Knowing what we know now, I would never have voted for it," she responded. "I gave him the authority to send inspectors back in to determine the truth. I said this is not a vote to authorize pre-emptive war."
Later at a high school gym packed with about 3,000 people in the state capital, Concord, she was asked if she wanted to "have it both ways" by calling for the war's end after voting for the measure five years ago.
"I do not believe that most of us who voted to give the president authority thought he would so misuse the authority we gave him," she replied. "He said he was going to the United Nations to put inspectors in. He did, but then he didn't let them complete their mission and he rushed to war."
Clinton, an opponent of Bush's plan to send 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq, is the early Democratic front-runner and received enthusiastic applause and standing ovations in both New Hampshire cities.
'A LITTLE PENANCE'
But the questions highlight how the war remains a potential vulnerability for her among party activists whose support is critical in the party's nomination process.
"I don't think this issue going to subside anytime soon," said Dean Spiliotes, director of research at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "There is a lot of pressure on her now to explain her vote and almost do a little penance for it."
At the start of a two-day weekend swing across the state, Clinton said the United States needed a new diplomatic touch to fight terrorism and deal with the Middle East.
"As president I know I can't kill, jail or occupy every nation we don't agree with and I cannot just wish that all the terrorists be wiped off the face of the Earth," said Clinton, who aims to become the first female U.S. president.
The wife of former U.S. President Bill Clinton is running first among New Hampshire Democratic primary voters with 35 percent support, according to a University of New Hampshire survey released last week.
Democrat Barack Obama, who launched his 2008 White House run on Saturday with a pledge to end the Iraq war, is second with 21 percent, and 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards third with 16 percent, the survey showed.
New Hampshire law requires its primary to be held at least one week before any other primary.
"She doesn't have all the answers, but she's well-connected and knows who to bring to the table," said Kathleen Kelley, 50, of Randolph, New Hampshire, after watching her speak.
"She's not afraid to ask for assistance and can facilitate the conversation. That's the kind of leader we need right now," Kelley said.
(Additional reporting by Brian Early in Berlin)