Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut greet the audience.
Democratic presidential hopefuls pledged Thursday to put the country on the road to a balanced budget by raising taxes for wealthy Americans and big corporations.
But they all agreed there is no quick fix when it comes to reducing the country's $127 billion deficit.
"You can't do it in a year. It'll take time, but the economy will grow again when we start acting fiscally responsible," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who took the stage with five of her Democratic rivals for the final debate before Iowa's caucuses on Jan. 3.
Clinton said she would cut costs and implement programs to make the government run more efficiently, harkening back to the 1990s when her husband, former President Bill Clinton, left the Bush administration a budget surplus.
Eliminate Tax Cuts for Wealthy, Corporations
"We don't have to go back very far in our history — in fact, just to the 1990s — to see what happens when we do have a fiscally responsible budget that does use rules of discipline to make sure that we're not cutting taxes or spending more than we can afford," Clinton said. "I will institute those very same approaches."
The deficit hit a record high of $413 billion in 2004 before declining to $162.8 billion for the 2007 budget year, which ended Sept. 30.
Clinton and her rivals also called for higher taxes on the country's wealthiest citizens and big corporations to help put the country back on sound financial footing.
"The truth of the matter is the tax policy has been established by the big corporations and the wealthiest Americans," said former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. "What we ought to be doing instead is getting rid of those tax breaks."
The candidates also acknowledged the need to cut government waste and make changes in programs, including Medicare, but Illinois Sen. Barack Obama said it will take a new kind of politician to actually make that happen.
"We are not going to make some of these changes unless we change how business is done in Washington," Obama said. "The reason that we can't negotiate for prescription drugs under the Medicare prescription drug plan is because the drug companies specifically sought and obtained a provision in that bill that prevented us from doing it."
Both Obama and Edwards have criticized Clinton for being too accommodating of corporate interests on matters including health care — and the need for a change is a common theme of Obama's campaign.
The Democrats answered questions on the same stage that Republican White House hopefuls held on Wednesday, during the second half of a debate double-header sponsored by The Des Moines Register.
Polls show Obama, Clinton and Edwards in a tight race.
But the debate also provided a forum for some of the lesser-known candidates in the race.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson talked up his energy plan, which is more aggressive than most of the other Democrats' plans.
"I think fuel-efficiency standards in this country should be 50 miles per gallon, not 35. I think that's pathetic," he said.
The candidates were also asked about education. Biden said he favors starting children to school earlier and putting them in smaller classes. He also said every child should have an opportunity to attend college.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio was excluded from the debate by the debate's sponsor because he does not have a campaign office in Iowa.
From NPR reports and The Associated Press