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Dem Debate: Edwards, Hillary and Obama Slug It Out on Iraq

Edwards slams Clinton and Obama on the war. But Hillary holds her own, while Obama coasts.
 
 
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There are no major differences among us regarding the Iraq war.

So said Senator Hillary Clinton at Sunday night's Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire.

There are profound differences among us regarding the Iraq war.

So said former Senator John Edwards at the same debate.

The difference over the difference was the main point of contention of the event. The positions staked out by the leading candidates were--no shocker here--obvious. Clinton wants to play down the fact that until recently she was out of step with Democratic primary voters concerning the war, for she had (a) voted to grant George W. Bush the authority to attack Iraq and then (b) more or less defended the war for several years before she (c) announced her campaign for presidency and starting calling (and voting) for an end to the war. So on the stage she pointed out that " we all believe we need to end the war." She added that whatever disagreements exist among the Democrats on how best to do so, these disputes are trivial given that every major Republican running to succeed Bush supports the president on the war. "This is George Bush's war," she declared.

It was a typical frontrunner's performance. Focus not on the rivals in your own party but on the other side. After all, Clinton doesn't want to encourage Democratic voters to compare the Democratic contenders on the Iraq war.

Edwards--who's placing third in the national polls but first in the Iowa polls--needs a line of attack on Clinton and Senator Barack Obama. So at the debate, he maintained there's an immense gap between himself and the other two. He defined it as the "difference between leading and following." He noted--correctly--that when the recent Iraq war funding bill was up for a vote in the Senate, he vociferously urged the Democrats in the Senate to say no to Bush, while Clinton and Obama went mum. Sure, Edwards went on, Clinton and Obama ended up voting against the funding, but they did so "quietly" and said nothing about how they would vote before the roll was called. That, Edwards maintained, is not leadership.

Edwards had a point--but perhaps a minor one. Is this criticism enough to fuel his attempt to overtake Clinton and Obama? Edwards' claim that he's the best antiwar candidate of the leading Democrats would have more potency if his current position were significantly different from theirs. But Clinton and Obama, by voting against the Iraq funding measure, did not give Edwards the opening he craved. And at the debate, Obama had a good comeback. "It is important to lead," he said, adding "I opposed this war from the start...not years late." Edwards, like Clinton, voted to give Bush the authority to start the war.

So among the Democrats' three leaders, there's a candidate who was initially against the war and now pledges to end it, a candidate who voted for the war and now pledges to end it, and a candidate who voted for the war and now pledges to end it and who criticizes his two key opponents for not being sufficiently passionate in their opposition to the war. Viva la difference? Or not.

Clinton hopes to blur the edges; Edwards needs to sharpen them. Meanwhile, Obama cannot coast on his original opposition to the war. If he and Clinton are at the same place now on the most critical issue for Democratic voters, he's going to have a tough time upsetting her apple cart. On Iraq--the dominant topic of the night--this debate did not achieve much for Clinton's main rivals. With Edwards' support slipping and Obama's support softening in the most recent national poll, each needs a boost more than she does. Bottom-line (for those keeping score at home): it was a good night for the former First Lady. Anytime she makes it through a debate without being clobbered, she's the winner.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation and author of " The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception ." He writes a blog at davidcorn.com.