GOFFSTOWN, N.H. -- Jockeying for advantage in the first primary state, former Sen. John Edwards took on the Democratic front-runners over the war in Iraq in a sometimes contentious presidential debate last night.
In a spirited exchange on the pre-eminent issue of the Democratic campaign, Edwards criticized Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama for "quietly" casting last-minute votes last month against an emergency funding measure for the war in Iraq. He contrasted their silence with the decision of another contender, Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, to speak out against continued funding.
"There is a difference between leadership and legislating," said Edwards, who trails Clinton and Obama, according to national polling, which also shows that Democratic primary voters strongly favor a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.
Obama shot back aggressively, pointing to Edwards' 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq.
"John, the fact is that I opposed this war from the start. So you're about 4 1/2 years late on leadership on this issue," said Obama, who was under pressure to improve his performance after stumbling in the first debate in April. "I think it's important not to play politics on something that is as critical and as difficult as this."
The two-hour forum, held in a hockey rink on the campus of St. Anselm College, was the second of the Democratic campaign. It was carried on WMUR, the state's dominant TV station, and CNN, whose cameras repeatedly tried to isolate the leading candidates from those in the so-called "second tier."
In addition to the war, the eight candidates addressed a wide range of questions, including the recent immigration deal in Congress, health care, terrorism, gays in the military, genocide in Darfur, same-sex marriage and Bill Clinton's role in the next administration, regardless of who wins.
Most of the Democrats stressed the importance of repairing America's global reputation and restoring the nation's reputation for morality in its dealings with other countries.
Sen. Clinton, who faced renewed questioning during the debate about her 2002 vote, said the differences among the Democratic candidates, all of whom oppose the war, "are minor" - a point that Edwards disputed.
"The differences between us and the Republicans are major, and I don't want anybody in America to be confused," Clinton said.
In what could be read as a swipe at Edwards' decision to quit the Senate after one term representing North Carolina, Clinton said that Democrats, "by speaking out from the outside or working and casting votes that actually make a difference from the inside, we are trying to end the war."
Of the candidates now in Congress, only Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware voted to provide emergency funding for the war. Biden said that "as long as there is a single troop in Iraq ... I cannot and will not vote not to fund them."
Obama, an Illinois senator who had supported war funding up to last month, called his change of position a vote against "a continuation of a plan that has not worked."
Clinton's recent vote against war funding has highlighted her shift on Iraq and raised questions about whether she is "playing politics" on the issue, as debate moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN noted.
Addressing a point of concern to anti-war activists, among others, Clinton acknowledged that she did not read a key National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq before deciding to support President Bush's request for an authorization from Congress to remove Saddam Hussein by force if necessary.
Clinton, a senator from New York, said she had been "thoroughly briefed" about intelligence on Iraq and tried to dismiss the question as part of an argument "about the past." Edwards, who also said he read only a summary of the 90-page intelligence report, said he "had the information I needed." He then repeated his assertion, which Clinton has declined to echo, that his vote against the war was "wrong."
However, Obama, who opposed the war from the outset as a state legislator, noted that Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, then the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the NIE a factor in his decision to oppose the war resolution, "so obviously there was some pertinent information there."
Former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska said that all those who voted to authorize force against Iraq should be disqualified from serving as president, because "they don't have moral judgment."
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, who has the most consistent anti-war record in the field, said he would not use a Hellfire missile to kill Osama bin Laden, if U.S intelligence located him, because assassination should not be used as a tool.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Edwards raised their hands when asked if the United States should consider boycotting the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as a way of pressuring China to take action against the government of Sudan, a major Chinese oil supplier, to end the genocide in Darfur.
At several points, the candidates pushed back against the questions, attempting to turn the public's anti-news media attitudes to their advantage.
Obama drew applause by calling a question about making English the official language of the U.S. divisive and "a disservice to the American people."
"We're not going to engage in these hypotheticals," Clinton said at another point, drawing applause from several fellow candidates, as well as the crowd.
According to the latest New Hampshire polling, Clinton is the front-runner, as she is nationally. Obama and Edwards are the only candidates to break into double digits, though Richardson's support in the state appears to have grown and he is currently running fourth here.
Tomorrow night, 10 Republican presidential candidates will take the same stage for their third debate of the campaign. A likely 11th contender, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who formed a committee last week allowing him to raise money and pay staff, will not be participating.