Iraq Vote Looms over Clinton New Hampshire Visit

Sen. Hillary Clinton made a campaign trip to New Hampshire over the weekend, her first as a presidential candidate. The New York Democrat heard a lot about her vote to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

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Senator Hillary Clinton spent the weekend talking to voters in New Hampshire. That of course is where the first primary of the 2008 presidential election will take place 11 months from now. Clinton traveled the state holding town hall-style meetings in high school gyms and living rooms. The senator issued a strong rebuke of President Bush on the Iraq war.

She also found herself fending off criticism on that same issue, as NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: It was Senators Clinton's first-ever trip to New Hampshire as a presidential candidate. This weekend her events were all packed, the reception enthusiastic.

(Soundbite of crowd)

GONYEA: A wide variety of issues came up: health care, the environment, immigration - and Iraq.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): It is, without a doubt, one of the most painful challenges that we have faced in our country because of the arrogance and incompetence of our administration in Washington. And...

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

GONYEA: But it was also evident this weekend how complicated this issue is for Clinton, who in 2002 voted for the resolution giving President Bush the authority to go to war. Roger Tilton, a 46-year-old financial advisor, was in the audience at the event in the northern town of Berlin.

Mr. ROGER TILTEN: I want to know if, right here, right now, once and for all, without nuance, you can say that that war authorization vote was a mistake. And the reason I want to ask is because a lot of other senators have already done so.

GONYEA: Senator Clinton responded...

Sen. CLINTON: Well, I have said, and I will repeat it, that knowing what I know now, I would never have voted for it.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. CLINTON: But I also - I mean obviously you have to weigh everything as you make your decision. I have taken responsibility for my vote. The mistakes were made by this president, who misled this country and this Congress into a war that should not have been waged.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

GONYEA: After the event, Mr. Tilton seemed only more frustrated.

Mr. TILTEN: I can't listen to her until I hear her say that was a mistake. And I love what she says about healthcare. I love what she says about capping troop levels. I love what she's saying about the war now. But until she says it was a mistake, I'm not going to listen to anything else she says.

GONYEA: Later that day, Clinton held a town hall meeting in the Concord High School gymnasium. As the event was winding down, a woman seated on the bleachers to the right got her attention.

Ms. MONIQUE CESNA(ph) (Concord, New Hampshire): First of all, I have to say, you go girl.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GONYEA: Those words of encouragement came from 47-year-old Monique Cesna, a mother of five and a law student. But then she continued.

Ms. CESNA: I have to ask you a question, and it's not meant to be critical. You said that if you were president in 2002, you would have not gone into war.

Sen. CLINTON: Right.

Ms. CESNA: However, how can you then explain the seeming contradiction from your voting to support the invasion in Iraq and that statement?

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. CLINTON: Well, I'm glad to answer that. You know, I do not believe that most of us who voted to give the president authority thought he would so misuse the authority we gave him.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Sen. CLINTON: And now...

GONYEA: Cesna, who later told reporters that her youngest son is a Marine preparing for duty in Iraq, did say she found something she could live with in the senator's answer, that the president misled the Congress.

Ms. CESNA: I can appreciate what she's saying. I sort of understand now why she says, you know, yeah, if I were president I would have never gone in.

GONYEA: But Senator Clinton was again confronted on the issue at a small gathering at a private residence in Nashua yesterday. If anything, this weekend made it clear it's a question she will face over and over again on the campaign trail.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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