Las Vegas Review-Journal: Democratic Presidential Forum
By MOLLY BALL
Nevada provided the backdrop for the kickoff of the 2008 presidential campaign season Wednesday as eight Democrats seeking their party's nomination participated in a nationally broadcast forum.
The war in Iraq was front and center, with all eight candidates blasting the Bush administration's conduct. Iraq also was the issue on which subtle differences could be seen among mostly like-minded politicians, with some calling for an immediate pullout and others calling for a more gradual approach.
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"It needs to be ended now," said Tom Vilsack, former governor of Iowa. "Not six days from now, not six months from now, not six years from now."
Vilsack said Congress should take away funding for the war and redirect it to domestic uses.
But Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware said a pullout would lead to disaster. "I don't know anybody who believes that the Iraqis either have the competence, at this moment, or the will to make the significant compromises needed to stop this self-sustaining cycle of revenge," he said.
Without significant intervention to stabilize Iraq politically, he said, the current civil war will "metastasize" into a regional conflict that endangers the world and, in a "tragic irony," leads either to a new dictatorship or another occupying force.
Vilsack, Biden and the six other Democratic presidential candidates at the Carson City Community Center participated in an informal, individual question-and-answer session attended by about 600 people. Most were members of the national public employees union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which sponsored the event. Some of the audience members were retirees and there was a smattering of elected officials in the crowd as well.
The forum was shown live on the C-SPAN cable network and moderated by ABC News' George Stephanopoulos. Each candidate came onstage, gave a statement, answered questions and then gave a concluding statement. Many of the candidates also took questions from a horde of local and national media gathered backstage to record the first official gathering of candidates in the 2008 race.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was the only announced Democratic candidate to skip the event. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark and former Vice President Al Gore are also rumored to be considering running for the party's nomination.
For the first time, Nevada will be among the earliest states to choose a Democratic presidential nominee, a move made by the Democratic National Committee in an attempt to inject geographical and ethnic diversity into the selection process. There is no corresponding Republican event as there is in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The Nevada Democratic caucus is scheduled for Jan. 19.
The Democratic front-runner at this early stage of the process, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, on Wednesday proposed "redeployment" of troops in Iraq within 90 days to roles that are out of harm's way. She also proposed taking away President Bush's authority to conduct the war if benchmarks are not met. She said the Iraqi government must be forced to take more responsibility, with financial consequences.
"I want to cut money for Iraqi troops," Clinton said. "I want to cut the money that they get because they're not standing up and fighting the way that they have said they would."
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004, said, "It is time for us, the leaders of this country, the leaders in the United States Congress, to stop George Bush's escalation of the war, for us to stand up strongly and firmly."
He said he would do that by immediately pulling 50,000 troops out and redeploying the rest of the forces over the course of a year.
Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut also favored redeployment, saying U.S. forces in Iraq should only be used for border security, training Iraqi forces and fighting terrorism. Democratic senators are working to amend Bush's original war authorization to that effect, a direct rebuke of Bush's move for a troop "surge" into Baghdad to pacify the capital city.
"Don't put our men and women in uniform into these highly, densely populated areas where they're nothing more than referees in a civil war," Dodd said. "We need to get them out of there as soon as possible."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said that having authorized the war, Congress should "deauthorize" it. He called for the United States to "withdraw with diplomacy."
All the candidates said the United States should negotiate directly with enemies such as Syria and Iran, and most called for holding an international conference with all regional interests included, as recommended last year by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.
Biden, however, said he was the only candidate with a plan for the political future of Iraq. He said the country should be divided into relatively autonomous regions joined by a weak central government.
In addition to their differences about how to move forward in Iraq, many of the candidates ran into trouble over their initial support for the war. Biden, Clinton, Edwards and Dodd all voted for the 2002 measure authorizing Bush to go to war.
Only Clinton has not repudiated her vote, saying she made the best decision she could based on what she knew at the time.
The two least-known candidates had the easiest time, having opposed the war from the start. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who also ran as an antiwar candidate in 2004, said a president should have "the ability to do the right thing when it matters most, and I've demonstrated that."
Former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska also said he had nothing to apologize for. When Bush was pushing the case against Iraq in early 2002, he said, "I was saying on television, 'His lips are moving, and he's lying to you, just like Lyndon Johnson lied to us 30 years ago.' "
Clinton said she could not second-guess a vote that was "sincere." "I have taken responsibility for my vote, and I believe that none of us should get a free pass," she said. "It is up to the voters to judge what each of us has said and done."
Dodd said his vote was based on bad information about weapons of mass destruction, but added too many politicians are unable to acknowledge they made the wrong decision. "When you make a mistake, there's nothing wrong with admitting that," he said. "I've made them in the past, I'll make them in the future. It was a mistake, in my view, to vote the way we did five years ago on that resolution."
Edwards said his frankness in regretting his decision should be seen as proof he is honest. "I should never have voted for this war," he said. "I take responsibility for that. No one else is responsible for it. But the truth is, if we want to live in a moral and just America, if we want America to be able to lead in a moral and just world, we need a leader who is honest open and decent and trying to do the right thing."
Biden chalked up his regrettable authorization vote to a failure of imagination. "I vastly underestimated the incompetence of this administration," he said. Because the war in Afghanistan had been carried out well, he trusted the administration to take on Iraq. "We assumed they'd act equally as responsibly," Biden said. "They've been absolutely irresponsible."
The other major topics the candidates addressed were health care, taxes, Social Security, unions' right to organize, jobs and trade issues and education. They were largely in agreement that health care should be universal, the tax code should not favor the rich, Social Security should be protected and not privatized, unions should have the right of collective bargaining, U.S. jobs should not be shipped overseas, and education, from elementary to college, should be internationally competitive and available to all.
Answering questions backstage in a kinder-care room in which toys had been pushed to the corners and risers for cameras and a podium platform had been installed, Dodd, Richardson and Biden were asked about the proposed nuclear waste repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, considered the key federal issue for Nevadans. All agreed with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's assessment that the project is dead and rightly so.
Forum attendees said they liked the opportunity to hear from candidates such as Biden, Dodd, Richardson and Vilsack, whose national profiles aren't as high as Clinton and Edwards.
"They have a good perspective, and it's nice to see them get some attention," Tamatha Schreinert of Reno said.
Asked what the most important issue was, she said, "Getting us out of Iraq, definitely, for me. I wish it was education and health care, but I think we have to solve that first before we can do anything else."
A few dozen red-shirted members of the College Republicans protested in front of the community center, and Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., issued a statement on behalf of the state Republican Party, saying the Democratic hoopla was the wrong approach for the state and the country.
"What I saw today was a cast of Democrats pandering for individual political points, illustrating again that Democrats have more candidates than they do substantive ideas," Heller said. "Of this large cast of left-wing characters, I saw not one president among them."
But there was no doubt the assembled candidates left many people in the capital city star-struck, starting when Clinton, Vilsack and Dodd visited the Legislature in the morning.
When Clinton then stopped across the street at Comma Coffee, the owner, June Joplin, literally leaped into the air.
"It is a historical day for Carson City," said Joplin, whose establishment, usually a low-key hangout for musicians and chess players, also saw visits from Biden and Kucinich.
Even the Republican mayor of the 57,000-population burg was impressed.
"This is the biggest event we ever have had in Carson City," Marv Teixeira said. "It is as big as the Final Four. We really spiffed up the town."
Only the world's heavyweight championship fight between "Gentleman Jim" Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons attracted similar national attention, and that was back in 1897.
Teixeira watched the forum on television with a crowd of nearly 400 at the offices of the Nevada Appeal newspaper.
Also in attendance was Shirley Breeden of Las Vegas who took off work so she and her daughter Jennifer, a legislative employee, would have a chance to meet Clinton, who dropped by after her appearance at the forum.
"I think Hillary has a big heart," Shirley Breeden said after getting her picture taken with the candidate. "She has my vote."
Review-Journal Capital Bureau chief Ed Vogel contributed to this report.