Democratic presidential candidates gathered Sunday morning in Des Moines for a debate that opened with a focus on the qualifications of one of the eight candidates. The first question was about the campaign chatter over candidate Barack Obama’s readiness to be commander in chief.
A few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton began questioning Obama’s foreign policy credentials, but given the chance to do it again, she chose not to as the debate opened. "I’m running on my own qualifications and experience," Clinton said. "It’s really up to the voters to make these decisions."
Moderator George Stephanopoulos asked Clinton a follow-up, mentioning her allegation that Obama was naive to suggest he’d meet with the leaders of rogue nations like Iran. "You should not telegraph to our adversaries that you’re willing to meet with them without preconditions," Clinton said.
Chris Dodd has called Obama’s stance confusing and irresponsible and Dodd stuck by that assessment during the debate. "We’re asking Democrats across the country to choose amongst us here who is best able to lead," Dodd said.
Joe Biden has suggested Obama’s not ready to be president. "I stand by the statement," Biden said. Bill Richardson jumped in, calling Obama an "enormously fresh voice."
"Senator Obama does represent change. Senator Clinton has experience…With me, you get both," Richardson said, to laughter from his competitors plus laughter and applause from the crowd.
After about seven minutes of hearing the others evaluate him, Obama got his chance to speak. "To prepare for this debate, I rode in the bumper cars at the State Fair," Obama said, as the crowd laughed.
Obama accused his critics of trying to improve their own candidacies at his expense. "We need a fundamental change if we’re going to dig ourselves out of the hole George Bush has placed us in and that’s going to require the kind of aggressive diplomacy — preparation, yes — but aggressive diplomacy, the personal diplomacy of the next president to transform how the world sees us," Obama said. "That is ultimately going to make us safer."
John Edwards ventured into the discussion with a revival of his positive 2004 campaign theme. "How about a little hope and optimism? Where did it go?" Edwards asked. "…I think Senator Obama is entitled to express his view and it’s not shocking that people who’ve been in Washington a long time criticize him."
Clinton was asked to defend herself from those who suggest she can’t win the presidency because too many Americans hold a negative view of her. "The idea that you’re going to escape the Republican attack machine and not have high negatives by the time they’re through with you, I think, is just missing what’s been going on in American politics for the last 20 years," Clinton said. "The reason why we’re going to win is because we have a better vision for America."
The candidates engaged in a long discussion of withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Edwards drew applause from the crowd when he said any Democratic president would end the war.
"The differences between all of us are very small, but compared to the differences between us and the Republican candidates, who the best I can tell are George Bush on steroids — they’re going to keep this war going as long as it can possibly go," Edwards said.
Biden repeatedly warned of the importance of withdrawing without leaving a caldron of chaos behind. "This war must end, but there’s much more at stake as to how it ends," Biden said. "If it ends with (Iraq) splintering, we will have for a generation our grandchildren engaged in a regional war that will be consequential far beyond, far beyond Iraq."
The candidates also talked about the slump in the housing market, farm policy and merit-based pay for teachers. Only two candidates — Mike Gravel and Obama — expressed support for that, with Obama adding the caveat that teachers should help come up with the means of judging one another’s classroom performance rather than relying on students’ test scores.
Gravel and Dennis Kucinich were critical of their competitors on the stage, and Kucinich twice complained to the debate host about not getting a chance to make his case.
"I’ve been standing here for the last 45 minutes praying to God you were going to call on me," Kucinich said in answer to a question about the power of prayer. Gravel chose to turn his answer of that question into an attack. "Many people who pray are the ones who want to go to war, who want to kill fellow human beings. That disturbs me," Gravel said. "I think what we need is more love."
Sunday’s event was broadcast nationally on ABC-TV’s "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." September 26th is the next time all the candidates will debate.
Obama issued a statement Saturday, saying he’d be skipping candidate debates or joint appearances that are not sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. AARP plans to host a candidate event in Davenport on September 20th, and the group issued a statement saying AARP is "disappointed" by Obama’s decision to skip their forum.