NEW YORK – Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama Wednesday pushed back against accusations that his oft-repeated opposition to the Iraq war was not borne out by his Senate record.
In a conference call with reporters, Obama sought to squelch the accusations — raised by the campaign of his chief rival for the nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton — saying his Senate votes to continue funding the conflict don't contradict his long-standing opposition to it.
"Once we were in, we were going to have some responsibility to try to make it work as best we can. More importantly, you make sure the troops are supported," the Illinois senator said. "I don't think there's any contradiction there whatsoever. We should not get in, once we were in we had to make the best of a bad situation."
Earlier in the day on the Senate floor, Obama reminded colleagues of a speech he gave in 2002 warning of grave consequences if the U.S. invaded Iraq.
It was the latest flare-up in an escalating spat with Clinton, who is under fire from many Democratic activists for her 2002 vote authorizing military action in Iraq and whose lead in political polls is being eroded by Obama.
Clinton's lead strategist, Mark Penn, told an audience this week that Obama's votes on the war since he arrived in the Senate in 2005 had been identical to Clinton's.
With both candidates' credibility on the line, Obama said he wanted to make his record clear.
Obama has cast his early and forceful opposition to the war as a key test of presidential leadership and judgment. The Clinton team recently began openly challenging his claim of political purity and authenticity on the volatile issue.
Beneath the squabble lay an acute recognition of the depth of voter anger over Iraq, especially among Democratic primary voters.
Polling shows most Americans now decisively oppose the war, but the figure is much higher among Democrats. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll taken last month found that 61 percent of the public now believe the war was a mistake; among Democrats, it was 91 percent.
"Iraq is the issue that is first among equals right now, and these candidates are under incredible pressure from party activists to talk about it in a detailed way," Democratic strategist Erik Smith said. "Obama is trying to be the insurgent candidate on the war, while the Clinton campaign is trying to level the playing field and change the frame of the debate."
On the presidential campaign trail, without naming names, Obama jabs at rivals who voted in favor of the invasion.
"I am proud of the fact that I opposed this war from the start," Obama said to huge cheers at a rally Saturday in Oakland, Calif., "that I stood up in 2002 and said this is a bad idea. This is going to cost of billions of dollars and thousands of lives."
Clinton, meanwhile, has refused to repudiate her vote but has harshly criticized the conduct of the war, saying "if we knew then what we know now" she never would have voted as she did.
Clinton advisers insist that voters care more about ending the Iraq conflict than revisiting how it started. In recent months, Clinton has sponsored legislation capping troop levels and has spoken in detail of how she would resolve the conflict as president.
Still, the Clinton camp — keenly aware of Obama's increasing popularity among Democrats — has become more aggressive in challenging his careful positioning on the war. The first signs of a new strategy trickled out late last week, when former President Clinton was quoted in a New York tabloid gossip column complaining that not enough attention had been paid to Obama's Senate votes on Iraq.
At a Harvard University forum Monday, Penn answered a question by bringing up Obama's Senate record. He said Obama, like Clinton, has voted for spending bills to continue funding the war. And like Clinton, he opposed an amendment sponsored by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry last year that would have set a July 1, 2007, deadline for withdrawing troops.
"When they got to the Senate, Senator Obama's votes were exactly the same," Penn said.
The claims provoked an immediate retort from the Obama campaign, which on Tuesday released a video and a detailed compilation of Obama's public statements opposing the war since his debut on the national stage.
"On the most important issue of our time, both for the primary electorate and the country, Barack Obama got it right," Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Clinton and Obama both support legislation that would remove most U.S. troops by March 1, 2008.
For her part, Clinton refused on Tuesday to engage in the debate, leaving that to her surrogates.
"I think what unites Democrats is much greater than what divides us and we need to stay focused on trying to rein in the president and reverse this escalation and begin to bring our troops home," she said.