DES MOINES, Iowa – Democratic rivals assailed front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton Tuesday for a vote against Iran that they portrayed as misguided and dangerous in light of a new intelligence report that says the Iranians stopped pursuing a nuclear weapon years ago.
One month before Iowa's leadoff caucuses — in a debate broadcast only on radio — the presidential candidates stood together in welcoming the report's assessment and criticizing President Bush's assertion that "nothing's changed" because of it. They divided on the three-month-old Senate vote to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization — a resolution that only Clinton supported among the Democratic candidates. She said her vote was meant to encourage diplomacy, but several of her foes were having none of that and John Edwards said it sounded like war.
Broadcast on NPR, the debate was limited to three subjects: Iran, China and immigration. The Democrats, unlike the campaign's Republican contenders, proposed no drastic crackdown on illegal immigrants. On China, they said more should be done to put U.S. companies on equal footing with Chinese imports, but again they proposed no radical new remedies.
The candidates sat in front of large radio microphones at a V-shaped table at the Iowa State Historical Museum. With no audience to see them in person or via video, they dressed more casually than in previous debates. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich was the only one to keep on his jacket and tie.
Their interaction with each other was relatively civil compared with the sniping between the campaigns of Clinton and rivals Barack Obama and Edwards in recent days.
Edwards did confront Clinton on her characterization of her September Iran vote.
"Declaring a military group sponsored by the state of Iran a terrorist organization, that's supposed to be diplomacy?" Edwards interjected. "This has to be considered in the context that Senator Clinton has said she agrees with George Bush terminology that we're in a global war on terror, then she voted to declare a military group in Iran a terrorist organization. What possible conclusion can you reach other than we are at war?"
Clinton objected. "You know I understand politics and I understand making outlandish political charges, but this really goes way too far," said the New York senator. She is locked in a tight three-way race with Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, and Obama, a senator from Illinois, in this first-voting state.
"None of us is advocating a rush to war," Clinton said.
Joe Biden, a senator from Delaware who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, didn't let that pass, telling Clinton that "terminology matters."
"It's not about not advocating a rush to war," he said. "I'm advocating no war."
Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd said he and others voted against the resolution because they felt it "specifically eliminated any option except the military one."
"Those critical moments come periodically, but it demonstrates leadership on a critical issue such as this one," Dodd said. Obama missed the vote while campaigning in New Hampshire.
"Among the Democratic candidates," Edwards reminded listeners, "there's only one that voted for this resolution. And this is exactly what Bush and Cheney wanted."
Iowa is scheduled to hold the first presidential nominating contest during caucuses on Jan. 3. While Clinton is the clear front-runner in national polls, Iowa is a more heated contest and her Iranian vote has been an issue with the state's voters.
The seven candidates participating in the debate began by agreeing that the United States should shift its focus in dealing with Iran to diplomatic engagement.
"President Bush continues to not let facts get in the way of his ideology," said Obama. "They should have stopped the saber rattling, should have never started it. And they need, now, to aggressively move on the diplomatic front."
Clinton said it's clear that pressure on Iran has had an effect — a point disputed by Biden.
"With all due respect with anybody who thinks that pressure brought this about, let's get this straight. In 2003, they stopped their program," Biden said.
On China, none of the candidates was willing to raise import taxes to make higher-priced U.S. products more competitive with Chinese products. Edwards pledged that none of his children's Christmas toys would come from China, and Dodd interjected to up the ante.
"My toys are coming from Iowa," Dodd said in an appeal to the race's first voters.
The discussion of immigration was in sharp contrast to the Republican debate last week in which the GOP candidates tried to outmaneuver each other on who would be tougher on illegal immigrants. The Democratic candidates said they were not willing to encourage Americans to arrest illegal citizens.
"We do not deputize the American people to do the job that the federal government is supposed to do," Obama said.
Kucinich agreed, saying, "We don't encourage vigilantism in this country."
Clinton said immigrants are part of the U.S. community and probably made the hotel beds that some of the candidates stayed in.
"They are embedded in our society," she said. "If we want to listen to the demagogues and the calls for us to begin to try to round up people and turn every American into a suspicious vigilante, I think we will do graver harm to the fabric of our nation than any kind of person-by-person reporting of someone who might be here illegally."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson missed the debate to attend a memorial service for a Korean War soldier whose remains he brought home from North Korea in April.