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For a brief time last night, Barack Obama was just another Democratic presidential candidate, one of eight to be precise. The same was true of Hillary Clinton. They were on stage with all the other Democrats seeking the White House. It was their first debate, a moment when the leading candidates stayed polite and the other candidates saw opportunities. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON: Just hours after the Senate passed legislation setting a deadline for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, the eight declared Democratic presidential candidates appeared at South Carolina State University and attacked President Bush for promising to veto the bill. Here's Illinois Senator Barack Obama.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I'm proud that I oppose this war from the start because I thought that it would lead to the disastrous conditions that we've seen on the ground in Iraq. But look, we are one vote away. We are one signature away, or 16 votes away - from ending this war. One signature away.
LIASSON: Obama and his main rival in the race Senator Hillary Clinton decided not to criticize each other instead they went out of their way to be polite and differential.
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Well, I think that what Barack said is right. I mean, part of our challenge is to put together the political support throughout the country, particularly within the Republican Party, to join with us to bring an end to this war.
LIASSON: Before the debate began, Obama dropped in on Clinton's green room, as she was getting ready. His aides said it was a friendly gesture to set the tone for their interaction during this mostly low-key encounter.
Sen. OBAMA: As Hillary mentioned earlier, this is going to be a change election. People are hungry for change. And the question is, who is going to be the most affective agent for change and...
LIASSON: Some of the other candidates who don't get as much attention as Obama and Clinton were less reluctant to criticize. Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich attacked his fellow Democratic members of Congress for continuing to finance the war.
Representative DENNIS KUCINICH (Democrat, Ohio): I think it's inconsistent to tell the American people that you oppose the war and yet you continue to vote to fund the war, because every time you vote to fund the war, you're reauthorizing the war all over again.
LIASSON: And New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson tried to differentiate himself from the rest of the pack on gun control. He has the highest rating from the National Rifle Association of any presidential candidate this year.
Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I'm a Westerner. I'm a governor of New Mexico. The Second Amendment is precious in the West. But I want to just state for the record - a vast, vast majority of gun owners are law abiding.
LIASSON: While the Democratic candidates are clearly focused on the upcoming primaries, Clinton in particular appeared to also be focused on a potential general election strategy. When asked what she would do if al-Qaida attacked American cities, she gave an answer that was meant to showcase her ability to be commander in chief.
Sen. CLINTON: I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate. If we are attacked and we can determine who is behind that attack, and if there were nation that supported or gave material aid to those who attacked us, I believe we should quickly respond. Now that doesn't mean we go looking for other fights.
LIASSON: The moderator of the debate, NBC's Brian Williams, asked each of the candidates about their vulnerabilities. He questioned John Edwards about the $400 haircut he charged to his campaign, an expenditure that seem to fly in the face of Edwards' carefully cultivated populist image.
Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Senator; Democrat, North Carolina; Democratic Presidential Candidate): But if the question is, Brian, whether I live a privileged and blessed lifestyle now, the answer to that is yes. A lot of us do. But it's not where I come from and I've not forgotten where I come from.
LIASSON: Obama was asked to explain why he took campaign donations from a donor with ethical problems.
Sen. OBAMA: We have thousands of donors. This donor engaged in some ethical behavior and I denounced it. But I have a track record of...
LIASSON: And Williams reminded Senator Joseph Biden about his, quote, "uncontrolled verbosity."
Mr. BRIAN WILLIAMS (Journalist, NBC News Anchor): Can you reassure voters on this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, senator?
Senator JOSEPH BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WILLIAMS: Thank you Sen. Biden.
LIASSON: That was by far the shortest and funniest answer in the 90-minute debate. It was a chance for all the Democrats to present themselves to the public on a level-playing field. There will be many more opportunities, almost one debate a month until the primaries begin next January.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Orangeburg, South Carolina.