Democratic Hopefuls Gather in Nevada

The addition of the Nevada caucus to the list of early presidential contests for 2008 makes it a "must-visit" state for Democratic candidates. A candidate forum drew many of those in the race to Carson City on Wednesday.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Nevada was in the political spotlight yesterday. That state held the first public forum for Democratic presidential candidates. It's part of a strategy to make the West more important in the nominating process.

NPR's Jeff Brady will report on that in a moment. But first, NPR's Ted Robbins went to yesterday's Democratic forum in Carson City, Nevada, and has this report.

TED ROBBINS: Here's the scene: a packed auditorium in the Carson City Community Center. The audience: members of AMFSCME, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, which sponsored the forum. Eight Democratic presidential candidates came out one by one, each gave a statement, then answered questions from George Stephanopoulos of ABC News.

Mr. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (ABC News): And the first candidate is Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd.

(Soundbite of cheering)

ROBBINS: The issues - job creation, universal health care and how to pay for it, but mostly the war in Iraq. Dodd voted to authorize the war in 2002. He apologized and chided frontrunner Hillary Clinton for not apologizing.

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): The two things that people in public life - two responses people in public life never like to give, and I understand why: I made a mistake and I don't know. It was a mistake, in my view, to vote the way we did five years ago in that resolution.

ROBBINS: Dodd called for removing troops from Baghdad immediately and redeploying them along Iraq's borders. Stephanopoulos asked if that would create chaos in Baghdad.

Sen. DODD:: How much more chaos could be created in Baghdad because of that (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of cheering)

ROBBINS: Senator Clinton then defended her vote to authorize the war as sincere based on the facts she had at that time.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): And I have taken responsibility for my vote. And I believe that none of us should get a free pass. It is up to the voters to judge what each of us has said and done.

ROBBINS: Clinton called for withdrawing troops beginning in 90 days and withdrawing money, but not for U.S. troops.

Senator CLINTON: 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.

(Soundbite of cheering)

ROBBINS: Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack called on the American people to end the war.

Mr. TOM VILSACK (Former Iowa Governor): I want to challenge every single one of you and ask the simple question: What have you done today? What have you done today to end this war in Iraq?

ROBBINS: Former North Carolina senator John Edwards jabbed again at Senator Clinton by comparing her defense with his apology.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former North Carolina Senator): We need a leader who will be open, who will tell the truth when they've made a mistake, who will take responsibility when they've made a mistake. I voted for this war; I was wrong. I should have never have voted for this war. I take responsibility for that.

ROBBINS: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador, played the diplomat. He told the crowd that the worst thing Democrats can do is tear each other down.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (New Mexico): So what I am proposing is that every Democratic candidate sign a pledge that we will not engage in any negative campaign towards each other.

(Soundbite of cheering)

ROBBINS: Richardson was also referring to a spat between Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Obama was the only candidate who did not appear at the Nevada forum. But Hollywood mogul David Geffen, an Obama supporter, was quoted as saying Clinton is too polarizing a candidate to win the presidency. And Geffen called Bill Clinton reckless.

The Clinton camp demanded an apology from Obama. The two campaigns traded barbs all day. But by the next speaker the topic was again Iraq. Delaware Senator Joe Biden.

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): And ladies and gentlemen, everyone you've heard today said we got to get out of Iraq. And that's true. But you got to answer the second question - then what? Then what? What do we do next?

ROBBINS: Biden said the U.S. should engage Muslim nations to help establish a strong federal government in Iraq and prevent a regional Mideast war. Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich is the only candidate who voted against the Iraq war, and he said the only truly independent candidate. In fact, he chanted it.

Representative DAVID KUCINICH (Democrat, Ohio): A president with no strings. A president with no strings. A president with no strings.

ROBBINS: Former Alaska Governor Mike Gravel also appeared in Nevada. And it is Nevada. Ask George Stephanopoulos, who got the only boo over the day when asking Chris Dodd a question from an audience member.

Mr. STEPHANOPOULOS: The first question actually comes from AFSCME member, Debra Frenzie(ph) or Reno, Nevada. And she says…

(Soundbite of crowd booing)

Mr. STEPHANOPOULOS: We've got a lot of them.

Sen. DODD: I think you may have mispronounced the word. Nevada.

Mr. STEPHANOPOULOS: If I have mispronounced it, I'm sorry. Nevada.

Sen. DODD: It's Nevada, George.

Mr. STEPHANOPOULOS: Okay.

ROBBINS: The candidates believe they will have plenty of time to get that right before the first Western caucus here in 11 months.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Carson City, Nevada.

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