Democratic Candidates Join NPR Debate

Seven Democratic presidential candidates gathered in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday for the NPR News and Iowa Public Radio audio-only debate. We hear highlights of the debate, which covered the topics of Iran, relations with China and immigration.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

There were no huge fireworks but a spirited, substantive debate today in Des Moines, Iowa. The Democratic presidential candidates gathered this afternoon at the State Historical Museum there for the first audio-only debate of this presidential race.

The NPR News and Iowa Public Radio debate comes just a month before the Iowa caucuses. My co-hosts, Robert Siegel and Michele Norris, along with MORNING EDITION host Steve Inskeep, moderated. And I'll be talking to Robert and Michele in just a few minutes.

First, a brief recap. There were just three topics of discussion - Iran was the first; specifically, the new National Intelligence Estimate that revealed Iran is not believed to be pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Christopher Dodd all argued for diplomatic engagement with Iran.

BLOCK: We're not going to reach the kind of resolution that we should seek unless we put that into the context of a diplomatic process.

BLOCK: They need now to aggressively move on the diplomatic front.

BLOCK: I've advocated, and others have as well, and that is, pursuing as much of a diplomatic solution to the problems that Iran poses. And there are some.

BLOCK: There was some disagreement over what diplomatic steps would be appropriate. And specifically, criticism of Clinton's vote designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. She defended that vote.

BLOCK: I believe in aggressive diplomacy when it comes to Iran, and when you engage in aggressive diplomacy, you need both carrots and sticks.

BLOCK: In response, John Edwards said this.

BLOCK: Declaring a military group sponsored by the state of Iran a terrorist organization, that's supposed to be diplomacy? What possible conclusion can you reach other than we are at war?

BLOCK: The second topic of the debate was China. And much of the talk was about Chinese products, including toys.

Michele Norris put this question to John Edwards.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Will you be buying toys that are made in China to place under the Christmas tree this year?

BLOCK: No, ma'am. I will not.

BLOCK: And not to be outdone, Chris Dodd, the father of two young girls, chimed right in.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: My toys are coming from Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: I'm buying Iowa toys.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: They're going to eat Iowa food.

BLOCK: And many of the candidates criticized the current administration's policy toward China.

Here is Joe Biden, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

BLOCK: We won't even designate China as a violator of human rights. Now, what's the deal there? We're talking about competition in terms of trade. It's capitulation.

BLOCK: The last major topic of discussion was immigration. When asked whether he would crack down on illegal immigrants come January 2009, Barack Obama pledged this.

BLOCK: I will initiate the process immediately, but to get comprehensive reform, to get an employer verification system that works, is going to take some time, just the same way that a pathway to legalization is going to take some time. But what it takes is some leadership.

BLOCK: The candidates were also thrown a listener question about the changing culture of America and the issue of language.

Here's Hillary Clinton.

BLOCK: Part of what the challenge here is, is to make it clear that we do expect people who want to become legal in America to try to learn English.

BLOCK: And Joe Biden.

BLOCK: Like every other large wave of immigrants, once they're bond to the second generation, they'll all be speaking English. What's the fear here?

BLOCK: Those are just some snippets from today's two-hour long NPR News and Iowa Public Radio debate in Des Moines, Iowa.

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