RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Turning to national politics - as a U.S. senator, the most important vote Hillary Clinton cast was on whether the nation should go to war with Iraq. Her 2002 decision to support President Bush has dogged her ever since.
Today, we begin a look at the five-year-old conflict's impact on the Democratic presidential race. Tomorrow, we'll hear about Barack Obama's anti-war speech in 2002. But we begin with NPR's David Greene, taking us back to the Clinton vote.
DAVID GREENE: In the fall of 2002, the drumbeat of war could not have been louder.
Vice President DICK CHENEY: Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction…
Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD (Former Secretary of Defense): No terrorist state poses a greater or more immediate threat to the security of our people than the regime of Saddam Hussein…
President GEORGE W. BUSH: The danger is is that al-Qaida becomes an extension of Saddam's madness and his hatred and his capacity to extend weapons of mass destruction around the world.
GREENE: That was Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and George W. Bush. The president made his final case against Saddam Hussein in a primetime speech on October 7th.
President BUSH: Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.
GREENE: On Capitol Hill, lawmakers faced a grave decision about Iraq, whether to approve this language: The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate.
It was an especially important test for Democrats, as the young Democratic Senator from Indiana Evan Bayh made clear at the time.
Senator EVAN BAYH (Democrat, Indiana): The majority of the American people tend to trust the Republican Party more on issues involving national security and defense than they do the Democratic Party, and I think we need to work to improve our image on that score.
GREENE: Perhaps no one was feeling the pressures as much as Hillary Clinton. Looking ahead to a presidential run, she knew the vote would be defining. And as she came to speak on the Senate floor, she said her New York constituents were on her mind as well.
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I come to this decision from the perspective of a senator from New York who has seen all too closely the consequences of last year's terrible attacks on our nation. In balancing the risks of action versus inaction, I think New Yorkers who have gone through the fires of hell may be more attuned to the risk of not acting. I know that I am.
GREENE: Besides, Clinton said, the administration, armed with intelligence about Iraq, made a powerful case.
Sen. CLINTON: Now, I believe the facts that have brought us to this fateful vote are not in doubt.
GREENE: She called Saddam a tyrant, a man who even tortured his own family to hang onto power. She carefully chose her words.
Sen. CLINTON: A vote for it is not a vote to rush to war. It is a vote that puts awesome responsibility in the hands of our president. And we say to him, use these powers wisely and as a last resort.
GREENE: In the end, the Senate gave the president those powers. Clinton and 28 other Democrats voted for war.
Now, fast forward three years to 2005, and President Bush had a different message for the country. He wasn't wavering about his decision to go to war, but he acknowledged this…
President BUSH: And it is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong. As president, I'm responsible for the decision to go into Iraq.
GREENE: But are members of Congress responsible for their decision as well? And should voters hold them accountable?
One of the Democrats who voted against war was the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Bob Graham of Florida. Graham looks back today and says he holds nothing against Clinton and others who voted for war.
Senator BOB GRAHAM (Democrat, Florida): It's not my job to forgive or to forget. I respect that they made a judgment based on their assessment of the information, their value that was placed upon the veracity of what they were being told. They just happened to be lied to.
GREENE: But Graham says voters are within their right to examine Clinton's vote.
Sen. GRAHAM: I think it's appropriate to discuss your past examples of dealing with unexpected challenges and what that might say about how you do it in the future.
GREENE: Clinton says if elected president, she'll end the war, but the questions about that 2002 keep dogging her. She's been confronted by voters.
Here's Roger Tilten, who came to see her about a year ago at a town hall in New Hampshire.
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.
Sen. CLINTON: Well, I have said, and I will repeat it, that knowing what I know now, I would never have voted for it.
GREENE: At a debate in Ohio last month, Clinton was asked if there's a vote she regrets.
Sen. CLINTON: Obviously, I've said many times that although my vote on the 2002 authorization regarding Iraq was a sincere vote, I would not have voted that way again. I would certainly, as president, never have taken us to war in Iraq, and I regret deeply that President Bush waged a preemptive war which I warned against and said I disagreed with.
GREENE: The moderator, NBC's Tim Russert, followed up.
Mr. TIM RUSSERT (Debate moderator, Reporter, NBC): To be clear, you'd like to have your vote back.
Sen. CLINTON: Absolutely. I've said that many times.
GREENE: No matter what she says, though, that vote remains part of the backdrop and part of this campaign.
David Greene, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: You can read Hillary Clinton's entire speech and follow an interactive timeline tracing the presidential candidates' positions on the war going back to 2002 at npr.org/elections.