DES MOINES, Iowa -- The Democratic presidential contenders used a debate before an Iowa audience yesterday to try to buttress their rallying call for changing the country's direction as they questioned Sen. Barack Obama's experience and argued over how best to leave Iraq.
"To prepare for this debate, I rode in the bumper cars at the State Fair," Obama said as he defended his foreign policy declarations on the failed "conventional thinking that has become the habit in Washington."
With opinion polls indicating that Obama, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina are bunched at the top in Iowa, the 90-minute debate on ABC's This Week held at Drake University provided the eight contenders an opportunity to launch into the campaign's more intensive phase leading up to the state's caucuses in January.
Clinton initially tried to walk away from her previous criticism of Obama over the Illinois lawmaker's vow that he would meet despotic foreign leaders without precondition, saying she is "running on my own qualifications and experience." But when reminded that she had called Obama's pledge "naive," Clinton said he was wrong to "give away the bargaining chip" of personal presidential meetings.
"Words mean something in campaigns," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, calling Obama's position "irresponsible."
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware said he stood by his earlier criticism of Obama that the presidency doesn't lend itself to "on-the-job training." Rather than adopting a Pakistan policy, Biden said, the United States has adopted a "bad policy" to deal only with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, sought to spin questions about Obama and Hillary Clinton in his favor.
"I think that Senator Obama does represent change. Senator Clinton has experience," Richardson said. "Change and experience - with me, you get both."
Obama's rivals chided him for making foreign policy pronouncements based on hypothetical situations. He has said that he would authorize a unilateral strike against al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden if there was actionable intelligence and Pakistan's government refused to act. He also has said he would not use nuclear weapons under any circumstances against terrorists in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
But the Illinois senator said yesterday that it is "not hypothetical that al-Qaida has established base camps in the hills between Afghanistan and Pakistan."
"This is part of what I think Americans get frustrated about in politics, where we have gamesmanship and we manufacture issues and controversies instead of talking about the serious problem that we have," Obama said. "The American people deserve to hear what we're going to do."
Richardson restated his belief that there could be a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in six to eight months. But his view was challenged by Biden and others who said a pullout should not be conducted precipitously.
"The fundamental disagreement I have with my colleagues up here is that they seem to cling to a fundamental strategic mistake that everyone on both sides plays to," Biden said, "and that is that there is any possibility in the lifetime of anyone here of having the Iraqis get together - have a unity government in Baghdad that pulls the country together."
Clinton said it was "so important that we not oversell this" concept of a U.S. troop withdrawal. She and Obama generally agreed with Biden that leaving Iraq should not be done in a way that results in a civil war with far-flung consequences for the Middle East and U.S. security.
With all of the candidates promoting themselves as agents for change, Edwards sought again to draw Clinton into a defense of why she does not refuse donations from Washington lobbyists.
"I don't believe you can change this country without taking on entrenched interests in Washington, including lobbyists, that stand between us and the change America needs," he said.
Clinton said she has fought special interests throughout her public life.
In the wide-ranging questioning, the candidates were asked whether they believe prayer could help avert disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or the Minneapolis bridge collapse.
Edwards and Biden said prayer is a source of comfort during times of personal tragedy. Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel said he was "struck by the fact that many people who pray are the ones who want to go to war, who want to kill fellow human beings."
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio had a simple response to debate host George Stephanopoulos.
"George, I've been standing here for the last 45 minutes praying to God you were going to call on me," Kucinich said.
Rick Pearson writes for the Chicago Tribune.