MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Iran was the first topic out of the gate at the Democratic presidential candidates debate in Des Moines, Iowa today. It was hosted by NPR and Iowa Public Radio. The idea was to provide a free-flowing discussion with the candidates engaging on a short list of issues so they'd have time for greater depth.
NPR is still trying to schedule a similar event with the Republican candidates. NPR's David Greene was in Des Moines today, listening to the Democrats 30 days before Iowa's presidential caucuses.
DAVID GREENE: The headlines about Iran were a backdrop for today's radio debate. That new report from U.S. intelligence agencies found that the Iranian regime halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. So NPR's Steve Inskeep, one of today's moderators, turned to Democrat Hillary Clinton and her September vote in favor of a tough resolution on Iran. The resolution declared that Iran's Revolutionary Guard is proliferating weapons of mass destruction.
STEVE INSKEEP: In view of this latest intelligence estimate, which says Iran's nuclear program was stopped in 2003, do you believe that's still true?
GREENE: Senator Clinton's response.
HILLARY CLINTON: Since that resolution passed, which was non-binding and did not in any way authorize the president to take any action that would lead to war, our commanders on the ground in Iraq have announced that we've seen some progress from the Iranians backing off, no longer sending in weapons and material and beginning to withdraw their technical advisers.
INSKEEP: Forgive me, are the Revolutionary Guards proliferators of mass destruction?
CLINTON: Well, many of us believe that.
GREENE: Clinton said her goal in voting for the resolution was to push for tough diplomacy, not war against Iran. But Democrat John Edwards said that's not how he saw Clinton's vote.
JOHN EDWARDS: Senator Clinton has said she agrees with George Bush, terminology that we have - we're in a global war on terror, then she voted to declare the military group in Iran a terrorist organization. How - what possible conclusion can you reach other than we are at war?
GREENE: Edwards had been holding back on attacking Clinton on the campaign trail in recent days, not so today. And Senator Clinton came right back at Edwards.
CLINTON: I understand politics and I understand making outlandish political charges, but this really goes way too far. In fact, having designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, we've actually seen some changes in their behavior.
GREENE: Senator Joe Biden from Delaware said he hasn't seen the changes Clinton has.
JOE BIDEN: This matters, and there's no evidence - none, zero - that this declaration caused any change in action on the part of the Iranian government.
GREENE: The candidates debated for two hours. All the Democrats in the race were there except for New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who was attending a service for a Korean War veteran whose remains he helped bring back to the U.S. The debate covered three issues, Iran, China and immigration. And after the ruckus over Iran, the debate highlighted a lot of agreement among the candidates. None supported tariffs on Chinese goods entering the U.S. But in the wake of recalls of some Chinese products, NPR's Michele Norris asked Senator John Edwards this.
MICHELE NORRIS: Senator Edwards, you have two small children.
NORRIS: Will you be buying toys that are made in China to place under the Christmas tree this year?
EDWARDS: No, ma'am. I will not.
GREENE: As for Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd.
CHRISTOPHER DODD: My toys are coming from Iowa. I'm buying Iowa toys. They're going to eat Iowa food.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GREENE: The candidates seem to agree that they want comprehensive immigration reform, but they were pressed on what that means. Illinois Senator Barack Obama was asked if U.S. citizens should be expected to turn in immigrants in their communities if they know they're in the U.S. illegally.
BARACK OBAMA: We're not going to deputize a whole bunch of American citizens to start grabbing people or turning them in. The - in part because the ordinary American citizen may not know whether or not this person is illegal or not. Now, we do - we should be holding employers accountable because they have a mechanism whereby they can actually enforce.
GREENE: The candidates were asked in the end to identify a public issue they are still struggling with. As for John Edwards.
EDWARDS: Who I would choose as my vice president and whether to consider any of these people sitting at the table with me.
GREENE: Edwards appeared to be referring to the other candidates, not to the NPR moderators.
David Greene, NPR News, Des Moines.
BLOCK: And some of our other reporters were listening to the debate today as well. Their fact check of the candidates is on our Web site, npr.org.
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