ORANGEBURG, South Carolina (Reuters) - The eight Democratic White House contenders agreed on Thursday on the need to quickly pull U.S. troops out of Iraq and offer universal health care to Americans, but differed on the details in a largely polite first debate.
The initial face-to-face encounter of the 2008 campaign produced few fireworks but provided voters’ first extended view of front-runners Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and other candidates in a Democratic race already being waged at a breakneck pace 18 months before the vote.
On the day the Senate approved a bill to fund the war and set timetables for withdrawal by 2008, President George W. Bush and his policies in Iraq drew the biggest criticisms.
“I am proud that I opposed this war from the start, because I thought it would lead to the disastrous conditions that we’ve seen on the ground in Iraq,” said Illinois Sen. Obama, who supported the funding bill and urged Congress to override an expected Bush veto.
But New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he would go even further and support the removal of all U.S. troops by the end of this year. He said he would not vote for the Iraq funding bill given his opposition to the war.
“This war is a disaster. We must end this war,” Richardson said.
New York Sen. Clinton, who leads national polls in the Democratic race, refused again to apologize for her 2002 vote authorizing the war or call it a mistake. The former first lady’s stance has angered some Democratic activists.
The other Democratic candidates who voted for the 2002 resolution, including former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph Biden of Delaware, have called their votes a mistake.
“Senator Clinton and anyone else who voted for this war has to search themselves and decide whether they believe they’ve voted the right way. If so, they can support their vote,” Edwards said.
“If they believe they didn‘t, I think it’s important to be straightforward and honest,” he said.
On health care, Edwards defended his proposal for a universal plan to cover all Americans and be paid for by raising taxes on those making more than $200,000 a year.
“I think we have a responsibility, if you want to be president of the United States, to tell the American people what it is you want to do,” Edwards said. “Rhetoric’s not enough. High-falutin’ language is not enough.”
Richardson remained adamant that a universal health care plan could be instituted without raising taxes. “As Democrats, I just hope that we always don’t think of new taxes to pay for programs,” he said.
The debate, the earliest in presidential campaign history, provided candidates little opportunity to address one another. They were given one minute to answer questions, and they did not make opening or closing statements.
Clinton, who would be the first female president, has seen Obama, who would be the first black president, cut into her national lead in polls and match her in fund raising.
But the two front-runners turned the spotlight over to their rivals for much of the debate, with Richardson, Dodd, Biden, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska sharing the stage.
While direct attacks were rare -- Kucinich did challenge Obama’s assertion he would keep military options open in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program -- the candidates made some veiled digs at each other.
Richardson made reference to “blow-dried candidates,” an apparent shot at Edwards, and Edwards’s reference to “high-falutin’ language” appeared aimed at Obama.
The Democratic debate was held in a crucial early primary state; South Carolina holds the first nominating contest in the South in January 2008.
Biden drew the night’s biggest laugh by far when asked about his tendency to give verbose and sometimes gaffe-laden responses to questions. Asked if he could assure voters he could discipline himself, he responded simply “yes.”
None of the candidates backed Kucinich’s effort to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney, and Edwards went blank when asked to name his moral leader. He said he couldn’t name one, but eventually named God, his wife and his father.