ORANGEBURG, S.C.- Democratic presidential candidates flashed their antiwar credentials last night, heaping criticism on President Bush's Iraq policy in the first debate of the 2008 campaign.
"The first day, I would get us out of Iraq by diplomacy," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, one of eight rivals on the debate stage.
"If this president does not get us out of Iraq, when I am president, I will," pledged Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
Clinton found herself on the receiving end of criticism moments later when former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said that she or anyone else who voted to authorize the war should "search their conscience."
Edwards, in the Senate at the time, also cast his vote for the invasion, but he has since apologized for doing so.
Of the eight candidates participating in the debate at South Carolina State University, four had voted earlier yesterday to support war-funding legislation that cleared Congress and requires troop withdrawals to begin by Oct. 1. The legislation sets a goal of a complete pullout by April 1, 2008.
"We are one signature away from ending this war," said Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. He said that if Bush failed to change his mind about vetoing the bill, Democrats needed to work on rounding up enough Republican votes to override him.
In addition to Obama and Clinton, Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut also cast votes in favor of the legislation.
Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio also participated in the debate, lesser-funded contenders who seemed most eager to challenge their rivals.
The debate - nine months before the kickoff Iowa caucuses - ran 90 minutes, without opening or closing statements from the candidates.
A ground rule limiting answers to 60 seconds made for a rapid-fire debate but prevented follow-up questions when any of the eight sidestepped - as when Clinton and Biden avoided saying whether they agreed with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's assessment that the Iraq war is lost.
Republicans rebutted from a distance. "On every issue, from the war on terror to keeping our taxes low and our economy strong, Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards and others are out of touch with the values of the people of South Carolina and all of America," GOP chairman Robert Duncan said in a statement issued moments after the debate ended.
While Iraq dominated the debate's early moments, Edwards was asked about having paid for a $400 haircut from campaign donations rather than from his own wallet.
"That was a mistake, which we remedied," he said. A wealthy former trial lawyer, he recalled once having gone to dinner at a restaurant as a young child and having to leave because his father could not afford the prices.
"I've not forgotten where I came from," he said.
Five of the eight - Gravel, Biden, Dodd, Kucinich and Richardson - raised their hands when moderator Brian Williams of NBC News asked whether they had ever had a gun in their home.
There were moments of levity, as when Williams referred to Biden's reputation for "verbosity" and asked whether he had the discipline to be a player on the world stage.
"Yes," Biden replied with uncharacteristic brevity.
Perhaps because the campaign is still in its early stages, there was little cross-stage criticism.
Kucinich challenged Obama at one point for once saying that all options were on the table regarding Iran. "You're setting the stage for another war," the Ohio congressman said.
"I think it would be a profound mistake for us to initiate a war with Iran," Obama replied. "But have no doubt: Iran possessing nuclear weapons will be a major threat to us and to the region."
As expected, Bush's Iraq war policy found no supporters on the debate stage.
"I am proud that I opposed this war from the start," Obama said.
"The president has a fundamentally flawed policy," Biden said. "The president should start off by not vetoing the legislation he says he will veto."
Dodd said Bush was pursuing a "failed policy."
Kucinich jabbed at the senators on stage, saying it made no sense to oppose the war and then turn around and vote for more money as they did. He voted against the war-funding bill Wednesday in the House.
Fox News will have a say in deciding which Republican presidential candidates participate in a May 15 debate in South Carolina.
State Republican chairman Katon Dawson and a Fox News spokesman said they had agreed on criteria, including polling numbers, for choosing the participants.
"We understand there's not room for everybody on a nationwide political stage
for a Republican debate," Dawson said yesterday.
The party notified candidates that they must have filed papers establishing an exploratory committee or full-blown candidacy and paid the fees associated with the state primary. They also must have drawn "at least
1 percent in recent state and national polls leading up to the registration deadline."
Also yesterday, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore entered the race for the GOP presidential nomination in a Webcast
that he said allowed him to talk directly to voters.
Gilmore, who formed an exploratory committee earlier this year, said his campaign was "about national security and the security of Americans everywhere."
- Associated Press