The eight Democratic presidential hopefuls held a nationally televised debate in Iowa Sunday marked by sharper disagreements than some earlier events, as candidates wrestled with the balance of experience, fresh ideas and electability.
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton barely had time to say "good morning" before she was asked to weigh in on rival Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's foreign policy experience, or lack of it. Clinton had earlier told an Iowa newspaper that Obama was "naive" and "irresponsible" for saying that, if elected president, he would meet with leaders of Iran, Syria and North Korea.
"I think the next president will face some of the most difficult international dangers, threats and challenges that any president has faced in a very long time," Clinton said. "When you've got that big an agenda, you should not telegraph to our adversaries that you're willing to meet with them without preconditions during the first year in office."
During the debate, televised on ABC's This Week, other candidates were also asked if Obama, a first-term senator, is ready to be president. Obama joked that he'd prepared for the pummeling by riding the bumper cars at the Iowa State Fair.
Obama quickly turned the tables on Clinton, though, suggesting she's part of what he called "the failed politics of Washington."
"We're going to need somebody who can break out of the political patterns that we've been in for the last 20 years," Obama said. "And I think that's going to require building a new majority, getting new people involved in the process. And I wouldn't be running if I didn't believe I was the person best equipped to do that."
Several candidates were asked if Clinton could win a general election, given the strong negative attitudes some voters have towards her. That question of electability is still nagging some undecided voters.
"I want a Democratic candidate that can win," said Maryanne Gregory, who watched six of the candidates during a forum last night in Cedar Rapids. "That's what's most important. I think I know who I want, but it's got to be somebody that can win. It's important that we get a Democrat in office."
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards says in order to win next year, Democrats have to be seen as a party of change, not the status quo. He has repeatedly challenged Clinton and other rivals to stop taking campaign contributions from lobbyists.
"I don't believe you can change this country without taking on very entrenched interests in Washington, including lobbyists," Edwards said. "I don't believe you can do it by sitting at a table, negotiating with them, and trying to bring them together."
Debates like this one always attract some sign-waving enthusiasts, but it's not clear how much they affect ordinary voters. Democrats have already held more than two dozen debates and joint appearances — including three in Iowa this week alone.
The Obama campaign said Saturday that the senator plans to limit himself to just eight more debates this year, so he can spend more time meeting directly with voters in early balloting states.