CARSON CITY, Nev. – Former Sen. John Edwards jabbed gently at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday in the first all-candidates forum of the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign, saying her refusal to disavow a 2002 vote on Iraq was "between her and her conscience."
"It's not for me to judge," said Edwards, who — like Clinton — voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq, but unlike her, has since apologized for his vote.
The event format did not permit Clinton to respond to Edwards' swipe, which stood out on an afternoon in which Democrats launched serial attacks on President Bush's war policies.
"The worst we can do is tear each other down," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who called on his Democratic rivals to sign a pledge to avoid negative campaigning and concentrate their energy on taking the White House away from the Republicans next year.
Among Democratic presidential contenders, only Barack Obama skipped the event, which was hosted by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union. The Illinois senator campaigned in Iowa instead.
The convergence of so many candidates underscored Nevada's newfound importance in the 2008 nominating campaign. The state will hold caucuses on Jan. 19, five days after the lead-off Iowa caucuses and presumably only a few days before New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.
In their time on stage, several of the candidates made an explicit pitch for the votes of union members, stressing their backing for legislation designed to make it easier to join unions, for example.
Edwards, Clinton and others drew cheers when they voiced support for universal health coverage, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio vowed to pull the United States out of NAFTA soon after taking office in the White House.
But the Iraq war overshadowed all else at the two-hour event, Democrat after Democrat vying to show their eagerness to end U.S. participation in a conflict that has resulted in the deaths of more than 3,100 U.S. troops.
"Sign me up. No negatives," Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware said just after Richardson made his appeal. Moments later, though, he spoke dismissively of congressional efforts merely to stop Bush's plan to deploy additional troops. "Don't talk about capping and all that. Do something," he said.
Clinton and Obama support separate bills to prevent an increase in troop levels above those in effect in January.
Kucinich was more direct. He said he had voted against authorizing the war in 2002, adding, "People are looking for a president who does the right thing when it matters the most."
Former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, a quarter-century out of office, was the eighth candidate. "I don't think it's a big deal whether I get elected president or not," he said at one point.
The event occurred on a day in which aides to Obama and Clinton clashed over remarks made by DreamWorks founder David Geffen, a one-time supporter of President Clinton who has lined up behind the Illinois senator in 2008.
The Hollywood mogul was quoted in the New York Times as saying while "everybody in politics lies," the former president and former first lady "do it with such ease, it's troubling." Aides to the New York senator promptly called on Obama to give back a campaign donation from Geffen.
Clinton sidestepped a question of whether Obama should denounce Geffen's remarks. "I sure don't want Democrats or supporters of Democrats to be engaging in the politics of personal destruction," she told moderator George Stephanopoulos.
Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, the first to speak, brushed aside a suggestion from some administration allies that the withdrawal of troops from Iraq would create chaos.
"How much more chaos could there be in Baghdad than exists today?" he asked to applause from the audience at a union-sponsored event near the Nevada state capitol.
"Time has run out on what President Bush has tried to do in Iraq," said Clinton when she took her turn on stage. She touted her legislation to begin a troop withdrawal within 90 days, and as she has repeatedly, declined to apologize for her vote to authorize the war in 2002.
Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack struck a similar note. "I want to challenge every single one of you and ask a simple question, what have you done today? What have you done today to end this war in Iraq?
"It needs to be ended now. Not six days from now, not six months from now. Not six years from now. It needs to be ended now, and it is up to you," he said.
Edwards, the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee, said it was time to begin a troop withdrawal. "I voted for this war. I was wrong to vote for this war. I should never have voted for this war. I take responsibility for that. No one else is responsible for it.
He added, "But the truth is, if we want to live in a moral and just America, and we want America to be able to lead in a moral and just world. We need a leader who is honest, open and decent and trying to do the right thing."
Stephanopoulos asked Edwards moments later whether he had been referring to Clinton.
"Well, whether it's good enough I think it's between her and her conscience. It's not for me to judge," said the former North Carolina senator.
The program called for each contenders to make brief opening comments, then field three questions from Stephanopoulus, an ABC News broadcaster and former aide in Bill Clinton's White House. That meant, for example, that Clinton was backstage when Edwards spoke.
The Republican National Committee used the forum to try to put its own spin on the candidates, releasing "research documents" containing unflattering critiques of each of the Democrats hours before the event.
In recent years, Democrats have sensed political opportunity in the mountain West, a fast-growing region long dominated by Republicans. Nevada, with its large Hispanic population and influential labor unions, was considered a battleground state in 2004, and President Bush won the state by just 3 percentage points.