Election 2008

Democratic Candidates Speak at Nevada Forum

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The 2008 presidential campaign has already seen its share of rallies, town hall meetings, big-time endorsements, and even a few ads. Today, the campaign season saw its first major candidate forum. The leading Democratic contenders, except Sen. Barack Obama, all spoke at a union-sponsored event in Carson City, Nev. Robert Siegel talks with NPR's Mara Liasson about the forum.


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


And I'm Robert Siegel.

It wasn't quite a debate, but it was a chance for Democrats to take stock of the field. Eight of the Democrats running for president took part in the first forum of the campaign in Carson City, Nevada today.

NPR's Mara Liasson was watching, and she's with us now. And Mara, I want you to set the scene for us, tell us who is there - and what's that forum, anyway?

MARA LIASSON: Well, every one of the candidates was there, except for Barack Obama - so that's Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Tom Vilsack, Joseph Biden, Dennis Kucinich, Bill Richardson and Mike Gravel. In case you don't know who he is, he's the former Senator from Alaska. The reason they were there is that Nevada, Nevada...

SIEGEL: Nevada.

LIASSON: ...Nevada, is moving its caucus up to January 19th, so it's become a much more important state. The West has become a very important region this year to Democrats. They feel they can make some gains there, electorally. And this is the time of the year that candidates in both parties make the rounds of their respective interest groups. This week, Republicans were at that National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Orlando. Democrats were in Carson City at the forum, and it was sponsored by AFSCME, which is the public sector union - very important constituency for the Democrats. A forum, Robert...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

LIASSON: ...is, in effect, a serial job interview. One by one, these candidates were interviewed by George Stephanopoulos of ABC. There was no interaction between them.

SIEGEL: And what did they talk about in their interviews with Stephanopoulos?

LIASSON: Well, the war was not surprisingly the main topic. Obviously, all the Democrats are against it. But there are differences in their positions. A lot of the comments were directed at Senator Clinton. She is the frontrunner, and she is the only one who voted for the war but has so far refused to call her vote a mistake or to apologize for it. Here is what Chris Dodd had to say.

CHRIS DODD: The two things that people in public life - two responses, two - people in public life never like to give, and I don't understand why. I made a mistake, and I don't know. They're very reasonable answers to questions. When you made a mistake, there's nothing wrong with admitting that.

LIASSON: And Dodd said he made a mistake. He shouldn't have voted the way he did for the war. Then John Edwards got into the fray. He has been the most aggressive so far at pressing Mrs. Clinton to either apologize for her vote or to say it was a mistake.

JOHN EDWARDS: We need a leader who will be open and honest with you and with the American people - who will tell the truth - who will tell the truth when they have made a mistake, who will take responsibility when they've made a mistake.

LIASSON: Well, not surprisingly, Mrs. Clinton is not going to say she made a mistake. She's really drawn a line on the sand on that. But she has been moving in her prescriptions for ending the war. And today, she talked about a piece of legislation that she has proposed that would begin redeployment of American troops within 90 days, and she explained why she doesn't want to vote to cut off funding for the war.

HILLARY CLINTON: People ask me: Well, why don't you want to cut money for American troops? I want to cut money for Iraqi troops. I want to cut the money that they get, because they're not standing up and fighting the way that they have said they would.


LIASSON: So Mrs. Clinton is now for actually de-funding any aid to the Iraqi Security Forces. Interesting note: Dennis Kucinich - who is the only candidate who actually voted against the war in the beginning - came on stage to say, you know, all these candidates come on and say they were deceived. They were lied to. Well, here's one candidate who wasn't deceived.

SIEGEL: Now, Senator Clinton, I gather, was also asked about the tiff with the Obama campaign over remarks made by David Geffen.

LIASSON: Well, this is an amazing little dustup. Maureen Dowd wrote a column. She interviewed David Geffen, the Hollywood mogul, who said a lot of negative things about the Clintons. He called former president Bill Clinton a reckless guy. He said that everyone in politics lies, but they, the Clintons, do it with such ease. The Clinton campaign demanded that Obama return Geffen's money, and denounced the comments. Mrs. Clinton was asked about it today, but she would not repeat the demands her campaign has made.

CLINTON: Well, I want to run a very positive campaign. And I sure don't want Democrats or the supporters of Democrats to be engaging in the politics of personal destruction. I think we should stay...


CLINTON: ...focused on what we're going to do for America. And, you know, I believe Bill Clinton was a good president, and I'm very proud of the...


CLINTON: ...record of President Clinton.

LIASSON: Above the fray, but it is surprising that this kind of attack and counterattack is starting this early.

SIEGEL: So where was Barack Obama?

LIASSON: He was in Iowa, where he's been investing a lot of time. He had Iowa all to himself today. And he thinks that might do him some good.

SIEGEL: Quickly, health care. Also a topic raised?

LIASSON: Yes, big differences over health care. John Edwards has said he's going to raise taxes to pay for universal health care. Tom Vilsack, Bill Richardson say, no. They don't think they need to raise taxes. Mrs. Clinton said, basically, stay tuned. She'll be releasing her plans soon.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Mara. It's NPR's Mara Liasson, talking about today's Democratic presidential candidate forum in Carson City, Nevada.

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