by Catherine Hours
by Catherine Hours
In the first televised debate of the 2008 campaign, more than 18 months before the November 4, 2008 election, Democrats were strongly critical of the Bush administration for continuing to funnel thousands of US troops and billions of dollars into what they see as a faltering Iraq war effort.
"The American people have said, Republicans and Democrats, that it’s time to end this war," said top-tier candidate Senator Barack Obama, who aspires to become the country’s first African-American president.
Obama criticized the "disastrous conditions that we’ve seen on the ground in Iraq."
Equally emphatic was Senator Joseph Biden, who condemned Bush’s "fundamentally flawed policy."
"The real question," said Biden, "is are we going to be able to leave Iraq, get our troops out, and leave behind something other than chaos?"
The candidates pressed the case for a dramatic policy change in Iraq, armed with poll results showing a majority of Americans backing the Democratic push for a troop pullout.
Thursday’s debate also was seen as a key step for each candidate in helping raise funds and attract staff, in what is becoming the longest and most expensive campaign for the US presidency in history.
And the event was viewed as a golden opportunity for lesser-known candidates such as senators Biden and Christopher Dodd, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, former senator Mike Gravel and Representative Dennis Kucinich to boost their profiles.
All eight roundly criticized the president’s handling of the four-year-old Iraq war that continues to be plagued by sectarian strife and a stubborn insurgency.
"This is not America’s war to win or lose," Clinton said, adding that the United States had gone as far as it could in bringing democracy to Iraq without greater Iraqi input.
"We have given the Iraqi people the chance to have freedom, to have their own country. It is up to them to decide whether or not they’re going to take that chance," the New York senator said.
South Carolina is a key state in the nominating process as it will hold a primary election next year between the initial contests in Iowa and New Hampshire and the "Super Tuesday" slate of races on February 5.
Clinton headed into the 90-minute debate narrowly leading Obama, according to the latest national polls, with former senator John Edwards a bit further behind in third place.
The New York senator struck a humble note as she took "responsibility for my vote" authorizing Bush to invade Iraq.
When asked about political missteps made over the years, she professed not to "have enough time to tell you all the mistakes I’ve made in the past many years."
For his part, Obama, Clinton’s chief rival for the nomination, seemed poised and self-possessed, except in a couple of testy exchanges over Iran’s nuclear program.
Representative Dennis Kucinich accused Obama of "setting the stage" for an invasion of Iran by talking tough about Tehran’s nuclear program, while another contender, former Alaska governor Mike Gravel, demanded to know whether Obama was planning to "nuke" Iran.
"I’m not planning to nuke anybody right now, Mike, I promise," Obama answered, trying to restore the event’s genial tone.
A survey by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News showed Clinton with a 36-31 percent lead over Obama, down from a 12-point edge she held a month ago.
Edwards, the party’s 2004 vice presidential candidate, was within striking distance at 20 percent.
The candidates squared off just hours after the Democratic-controlled Congress adopted a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops starting in October, despite Bush’s certain veto of the bill — a milestone Clinton was quick to note.
"Congress has voted, as of today, to end this war," Clinton said.
"Now we can only hope that the president will listen."