DES MOINES, Iowa – Democrat Barack Obama on Sunday tried to portray his relative lack of national experience as a positive, chiding rivals for "conventional thinking" that led to war and divided the nation.
In the latest Democratic debate, the candidates critiqued the first-term senator for recent comments on Pakistan and a willingness to meet with foreign leaders — including North Korea's head of state — without conditions.
"To prepare for this debate I rode in the bumper cars at the state fair," Obama said to laughter and applause from the audience at Drake University.
The debate capped an intense week of politicking in Iowa, an early voting state in the process of picking a nominee. The Iowa State Fair is a magnet for White House hopefuls each presidential election. This year was no exception, especially for Democrats who swept into the state after a GOP straw poll last week.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., directly addressing a question about Obama's relative inexperience, said: "You're not going to have time in January of '09 to get ready for this job." Dodd has served in Congress for more than 30 years.
Former Sen. John Edwards said Obama's opinions "add something to this debate." But Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee, said politicians who aspire to be president should not talk about hypothetical solutions to serious problems.
"It effectively limits your options," Edwards said, drawing agreement from one rival, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
Obama said he could handle the rigors of international diplomacy and noted that many in the race, including Dodd and Edwards and Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Biden, voted to authorize the Iraq war in 2002.
"Nobody had more experience than Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and many of the people on this stage that authorized this war," Obama said. "And it indicates how we get into trouble when we engage in the sort of conventional thinking that has become the habit in Washington."
The debate, hosted and broadcast nationally by ABC, took place less than five months before Iowa caucus-goers begin the process of selecting the parties' presidential nominees. The debate moderator was "This Week" host George Stephanopoulos, a former aide in the Clinton White House.
Touching on his recent criticism of Clinton as a divisive figure, Obama portrayed himself as the candidate who "can bring the country together around a common purpose and rally us around a common destiny."
Clinton, a target of criticism from outgoing Bush counselor Karl Rove, said Rove is "obsessed with me." She presented a different view of politics than Obama did, arguing that negative campaigning is inevitable no matter who is nominated.
The New York senator and former first lady said no one will escape the "Republican attack machine." She added, "I know how to beat them."
Clinton said she and Obama, an Illinois senator, disagreed over how to conduct international relations with leaders who have been foes of the United States. Obama said at an earlier debate that he would have no qualms about sitting down with leaders of renegade nations such as Cuba, North Korea and Iran.
"I do not think that a president should give away the bargaining chip of a personal meeting with any leader unless you know what you are going to get out of that," Clinton said.
Obama also has said he would send U.S. troops into Pakistan if the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, failed to act on specific intelligence about terrorists. The U.S. intelligence director has said he thinks Sept. 11 mastermind Usama bin Liden is living in the border region of Pakistan, and Musharraf's attempt to broker a political solution with tribes had backfired by giving Al Qaeda room to regroup.
Biden sidestepped criticism of Obama and blamed the Bush administration for failing to work with moderates in Pakistan, a country he called "potentially the most dangerous country in the world.
"We don't have a Pakistan policy. We have a Musharraf policy," he said.