NPR logo Dems Vying for President Debate in New Hampshire

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