Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Debate in Iowa

All eight major Democratic presidential candidates sparred in Des Moines in a televised debate. The two biggest questions in the debate had to with too much and too little: Does frontrunner Hillary Clinton of New York have too much baggage to win the general election? And does Barack Obama have too little experience to do the job of president of the United States?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

No quiet summer weekends in Iowa these days, what with the state knee-deep in candidate. Yesterday that state was again busy auditioning the Democratic presidential hopefuls. All eight major Democratic candidates showed up bright and early in Des Moines to debate for a national television audience.

NPR's Scott Horsley was there.

SCOTT HORSLEY: The two biggest questions in this debate had to do with too much and too little. Does front-runner Hillary Clinton have too much baggage to win the general election? And does Barack Obama have too little experience to do the job of president?

Senator Clinton was asked early on about comments from President Bush's outgoing political adviser Karl Rove that no candidate entering the process with negative ratings as high as hers has ever gone on to win the White House.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Well, I don't think Karl Rove is going to endorse me. That's become more and more obvious. But I find it interesting he's so obsessed with me, and I think the reason is because we know how to win.

HORSLEY: Clinton and the other candidates were also asked about Obama's readiness to serve after less than one full term in the Senate. Obama, who's been called naive for some of his recent foreign policy statements, said a lengthy tenure in Washington is no guarantee of good decision-making.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Nobody had more experience than Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, and many of the people on this stage that authorized this war, and it indicates how we get into trouble when we engage in the sort of conventional thinking that has become a habit in Washington.

HORSLEY: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador, proposed a diplomatic compromise.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico; Democratic Presidential Candidate): You know, I think that Senator Obama does represent change, Senator Clinton has experience. Change and experience, with me you get both.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORSLEY: Among the Democrats, Richardson has one of the most aggressive plans for withdrawing all troops from Iraq. But Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, thinks Richardson's plan goes too far.

Senator JOSEPH BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware; Democratic Presidential Candidate): This war must end, but there is much more at stake as how it ends. If it ends with this country splintering, we will have for a generation, our grandchildren, engaged in a regional war that will be consequential far beyond Iraq.

HORSLEY: ABC's George Stephanopoulos, who moderated the debate, tried hard to pin down differences among the candidates. But former North Carolina Senator John Edwards says when it comes to Iraq, those differences amount to hairsplitting, especially in contrast to the Republicans.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Democratic Presidential Nominee): As I'm listening today, I know your trying to create a fight up here. I understand that. But...

Mr. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (Host, ABC's "This Week"): I want to find out what you all think. That's all.

Mr. EDWARDS: ...any Democratic president will end this war, George. That's what we know.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd cautioned against getting too partisan, saying whoever's elected next year will have to work across party lines.

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut; Democratic Presidential Candidate): It's about getting this job done. We don't elect a king or a queen or a dictator in November. We elect a president. The margins are thin; no one political party is going to write all of this. It takes leadership and who knows how to bring people together. It's what I've done for 26 years.

HORSLEY: All the candidates were asked about the recent turmoil in the mortgage market and whether the Federal Reserve should lower interest rates. Here's former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel.

Mr. MIKE GRAVEL (Democratic Presidential Candidate): Well, I would say that there's no answer to that question. Just follow the money of the people on this dais and you'll see a response.

HORSLEY: That sounded like a dig at John Edwards. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that a private equity firm Edwards worked for and invests in has been foreclosing on the homes of Hurricane Katrina victims. Edwards has promised to unload those investments, and offered personal assistance to the affected homeowners. He's also called for a government rescue fund for millions of other homeowners at risk of foreclosure.

Some of the questions direct to the candidates yesterday came from the public, including a man in Utah who asked about the power of prayer. That prompted this response from Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich.

Representative DENNIS KUCINICH (Democrat, Ohio; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I've been standing here for the last 45 minutes praying to God you were going to call on me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORSLEY: Kucinich promised to bring strong spiritual values into the White House, including the values of peace and social justice.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Des Moines, Iowa.

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Democratic Rivals Spar in Iowa Debate

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.

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