MANCHESTER, N.H. – After nearly four years of war and more than 3,000 U.S. dead, New Hampshire voters are demanding more than nuance on Iraq from Democratic frontrunner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
From crowded town hall meetings to smaller gathering at private homes, Clinton was enthusiastically received by voters throughout the key early voting state on Saturday and Sunday. She deftly fielded questions on a range of subjects, from education to health care to the genocide in Darfur.
But invariably, the questions returned to Iraq. What would she do to end the conflict if elected president? Would she support cutting funds to stop President George W. Bush's planned increase in troop levels? And, perhaps most importantly, why won't she recant her 2002 vote authorizing the military invasion?
"She has a very nuanced explanation, and it's a pretty good explanation. But many people want to hear her clearly say that her vote was a mistake," said Paul LeBlanc, a Clinton supporter and president of Southern New Hampshire University.
It's a vexing matter for Clinton, who is hoping to become the nation's first female commander in chief. If she repudiates her vote — buckling to pressure from anti-war activists and two top Democratic rivals, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards — Clinton opens herself to accusations of flip-flopping. But defending her vote means she will continue to be dogged by skeptical questions about it as she campaigns in not only the early voting states but around the country.
On Sunday, Obama told reporters in Iowa that the war was a "tragic mistake" that never should have been authorized — a swipe at his Senate rivals who backed the 2002 resolution. Responding specifically to Clinton's stand, he said he was uncertain how she would proceed to reduce U.S. forces.
"I know that's she's stated that she thinks the war should end by the start of the next president's first term. Beyond that, though, how she wants to accomplish that, I'm not clear on," he said.
Throughout her weekend campaign visit here, Clinton stuck to her guns: She said she voted to give Bush authority to send weapons inspectors to Iraq, and that her vote was not an endorsement of pre-emptive war. She also said she would never have sought to invade Iraq if she had been president in 2002.
But that was not enough for Claire Helfman, a retired nurse who attended a Nashua house party to meet Clinton.
"I've heard your explanation for your vote: 'I didn't think I was voting for the war, I was voting for inspections.' It doesn't fly. It just doesn't fly," Helfman told Clinton.
The New York senator repeated her long-standing mantra — "If we knew then what we know now, I would never have voted to give this president the authority." And she again batted down calls for her to describe her vote as a mistake.
"I'm sorry, what I say is what I believe," she said. "I understand that some people disagree or think it's not adequate, but it's what I believe."
At a house party in Manchester on Sunday, Clinton offered an outline of what she would do as president to scale back the conflict. She vowed she would engage diplomatically with other countries in the region, relaunch the Middle East peace process and force Iraqis to take charge of their own security.
"I would tell the Iraqis, 'We are going to stop funding you unless you start doing what you've promised all these years,"' Clinton said. "I would say: 'I'm sorry, it's over. We've done all we can do for you. We liberated you, we got rid of Saddam Hussein for you, we are not going to baby-sit a civil war."'
But she also said she would not redeploy all troops out of the region, insisting that some are still needed to quell terrorist activity in Anbar province and to protect the Kurds in northern Iraq.
"There will still be missions," she said.
She also said she was not in favor of cutting funding for Bush's proposed troop increase, despite some activists' calls to do so.
In Nashua, Clinton thrilled many attendees by insisting that she has the mettle to take on Republicans in a general election, saying, "I'm the one person they're most afraid of because Bill and I know how to beat them and we have consistently."
But the Republican National Committee appeared eager to point out potential problems with Clinton's arguments on Iraq. In an e-mail titled "Hillary's Kerry-oake on Iraq," the committee likened her statements to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee who was badly weakened by accusations he had flip-flopped on the war.