Democratic Rivals Pounce on Clinton at Debate

Eight Democratic presidential candidates participate in a debate in New Hampshire. Sen. Hillary Clinton, the top contender, was politely pressed by rivals. She did her best to avoid being pinned down on questions about Iran, Social Security and baseball.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The frontrunner in the Democratic race for president was pressed - politely -last night by her rivals in their latest televised debate. Christopher Dodd, Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson were all encouraged to challenge Senator Hillary Clinton. And she did her best to avoid being pinned down on questions about Iran, Social Security and baseball.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: As the Democratic presidential nominating battle enters the fall season, Senator Clinton's position as the frontrunner has not been shaken, and her campaign has been working hard to create an aura of inevitability around her candidacy. Even her jumbo yard signs were designed to give the impression of dominance. The blue Hillary placards that lined the route to the Dartmouth College campus last night were three times the size of any other candidates. And Clinton herself was clearly a big target last night for her fellow Democrats and for the moderator of the debate, NBC's Tim Russert.

Mr. TIM RUSSERT (Moderator, "Meet the Press", NBC News): If, in fact, you made fundamental misjudgments on health care as first lady, and the war as senator, why shouldn't Democratic voters say she doesn't have the judgment to be president?

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): Well, Tim, I'm proud that I tried to get universal health care back in '93 and '94. It was a tough fight. It was kind of a lonely fight, but…

LIASSON: Senator Barack Obama faces a difficult challenge. He's raised more money than Clinton and draws consistently bigger crowds, but he hasn't been able to shrink her lead in the national polls. Last night, he did attack her, but only once, on health care.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): The issue is not going to be who has these particular plans, it has to do with who can inspire and mobilize the American people to get it done and open up the process. If it was lonely for Hillary, part of the reason it was lonely, Hillary, was because you closed the door to a lot of potential allies in that process.

LIASSON: At the invitation of Russert, Senator Joe Biden repeated a criticism he's made before that Clinton is too polarizing to create the bipartisan consensus needed to achieve universal health coverage.

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): And in order to get health care, you're going to have to be able to persuade at least 15 percent of the Republicans to vote for it.

Mr. RUSSERT: And she cannot?

Sen. BIDEN: No, I think it's more difficult for Hillary. I think it's a reality that it's more difficult, because there's a lot of very good things that come with all the great things that President Clinton did. But there's also a lot of the old stuff that comes back. It's kind of hard.

LIASSON: Obama, Clinton and John Edwards have clashed in the past on the war in Iraq, but last night, they were all on the same page when asked to promise to have all U.S. troops out by the end of their first term as president. All three refused. The candidates were also pressed on how they'd keep Social Security solvent. Obama and Edwards said they'd consider raising the cap on payroll taxes; Clinton refused to discuss specifics. She also resisted this line of questioning about Iran's nuclear program.

Mr. RUSSERT: Would the Israelis be justified, if they felt their security was being threatened by the presence of a nuclear presence in Iran, and they decided to take military action? Would they be justified?

Sen. CLINTON: Well, Tim, I'm not going to answer that, because what I understand is if there…

Sen. BIDEN: I'll…

LIASSON: Russert tried again.

Mr. RUSSERT: Would you make a promise, as a potential commander in chief, that you will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power and will use any means to stop it?

Sen. CLINTON: Well, what I have said is that I will do everything I can to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, including the use of diplomacy, the use of economic sanctions, opening up direct talks.

LIASSON: She wouldn't even let herself be nailed down on baseball when tossed the admittedly very hypothetical question of a world series between the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs - her two favorite teams.

Sen. CLINTON: It would be so out of history that you have the Cubs versus the Yankees, then I'd be really in trouble. But I…

Mr. RUSSERT: But who would you be for?

Sen. CLINTON: Well, I would probably have to alternate sides.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIASSON: A lighthearted but typical response from a candidate who is carefully and cautiously protecting her lead.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Hanover, New Hampshire.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Dems Vying for President Debate in New Hampshire

Leading Democratic contenders for the White House concede they may not be able to remove U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the next presidential term in 2013.

During a televised debate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire on Tuesday night, the candidates maintained they didn't know enough at this time to make a firm decision.

"It is very difficult to know what we're going to be inheriting," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

"I cannot make that commitment," said former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

"I think it's hard to project four years from now," said Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in the opening moments of a campaign debate in the nation's first primary state.

But sensing an opening, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson provided the assurances the others would not.

"I'll get the job done," said Dodd, while Richardson said he would make sure the troops were home by the end of his first year in office.

Foreign policy blended with domestic issues at the debate, and several of the contenders endorsed payroll tax increases to assure a stable Social Security system.

Current law levies a 6.2 percent payroll tax only on an individual's first $97,500 in annual income.

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, as well as Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, Dodd, Obama and Edwards said they would apply the tax to income now exempted.

Richardson said he wouldn't.

Clinton refused to say. "I'm not putting anything on the proverbial table" unilaterally, she said.

Biden also said he was willing to consider gradually raising the retirement age, now 67.

Kucinich said that while he favors taxing additional income, he wants to return the retirement age to 65, where it stood until the law was changed in 1983.

Health care, and the drive for universal coverage, also figured in the debate.

"I intend to be the health care president," said Clinton, adding she can now succeed at an undertaking that defeated her in 1993 when she was first lady.

But Biden said that unnamed special interests were no more willing to work with Clinton now than they were more than a decade ago.

"I'm not suggesting it's Hillary's fault; it's reality," he said, carefully avoiding a personal attack on Clinton, who leads in the polls.

Biden said a "lot of old stuff comes back" from past battles, adding, "when I say old stuff I mean policy."

Across the stage, Clinton smiled at that.

Much of the debate's attention was on the former first lady who may become the first woman president.

Asked whether she would ever approve torturing a suspected terrorist to prevent the detonation of a big bomb, she said no.

Debate moderator Tim Russert, a journalist with NBC News, noted that her husband, former President Bill Clinton once suggested it might be appropriate.

"Well, he's not standing here right now," she said, an edge in her voice.

With the primary season approaching, all eight contenders have vied with increasing intensity for the support of anti-war voters likely to provide money and organizing muscle as the campaign progresses.

Edwards said his position on Iraq was different from Obama and Clinton, adding he would "immediately draw down 40,000 to 50,000 troops." That's roughly half the 100,000 that Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has indicated could be stationed there when President Bush's term ends in January 2009. "I do not want to continue combat missions in Iraq," he said.

Asked whether they were prepared to use force to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, several of the hopefuls sidestepped. Instead, they said, all diplomacy must be exhausted in the effort.

The debate unfolded in the state that has held the first presidential primary in every campaign for generations.

New Hampshire's primary is tentatively set for Jan. 22, but that is expected to change as other states maneuver for earlier primaries.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.